The Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset (The Master of Hestviken)

With Olav Audunsson facing the end of his lonely days, his children Eirik and Cecilia find themselves trapped in the repercussions of Olav’s as-yet unconfessed sins.

There was so much I loved in The Son Avenger, particularly Cecilia’s journey of wife- and motherhood with Eirik’s less-than-reputable childhood friend Jorund. She really came alive as a different kind of woman than the others I’ve seen in Undset’s work, with a rigidity that blossomed into self-awareness and even a kind of independence. She’s mirrored nicely with Eldred, the woman Eirik falls in love with later in the book, and together they show that the feudal system and all its concomitant restrictions on people were not enough to break at least two women.

Undset was writing in the 1920s, and I find her approaches to class and sex to be refreshingly ahead of her time. It would probably be stretching things to call her a feminist, but there is an egalitarian quality to her character depictions that questions the power dynamic between the genders in a way that feels radical for both her time and the time she’s writing about. But because she’s deeply Christian, she isn’t going to let go of the notion of necessary submission as a vitally important character quality. In many ways, her characters live out St. Pauls’s teaching that in relation to God, we are all feminine.

Turning to the men, I was less excited by how Undset completed the journeys of Olav and Eirik. I really feel like Olav got let off the hook for his crimes, but that could be my 21st century desire for openness and transparency, since Olav does, in a sense, lose everything. Grown Eirik didn’t resemble boy Eirik enough for me to be swept away in the continuity of his story, and the ambiguous ending that Undset creates for him doesn’t help matters.

I’m so glad I made my way through this series, though it will never eclipse my beloved Kristin Lavransdatter.

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