Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter is truly an epic family saga, and I mean saga in the best possible way. It is not melodramatic, though it is full of drama. This trilogy, made up of The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross follows the life of one very strong, though very human woman in 14th century Medieval Norway. It is easily one of the best novels I have read this year and probably the best historical novel I have ever read (and I've read some very good ones).
If you have been following my posts (I have a category link on my lower left sidebar if you want to go back and read previous entries) you already have a good idea of what the novel is about, though I have tried not to go into great detail about the story. After reading the novel in its entirety I can easily see why this won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. The story is completely absorbing. Undset created completely three dimensional characters. Kristin and Erlend are the central characters and they are very human, complete with all the foibles and weaknesses that we all have. They could be proud and stubborn to the point of annoyance, but you still get a sense of their inner lives and the love that runs deep and wide between them.
What I found so impressive with the story were the emotions Undset could draw from me, the reader. I'm not even sure I can articulate what I felt as I was reading it. She managed to portray the life of one woman and all those other lives she touched upon, from her youth as a maiden through her death when she finally found peace with her life and the pain she may have caused others. It's interesting to look in at someone else's life and see how mistakes can be repeated through the generations. Kristin understood the guidance her parents tried to give her, and yet she chose her own path to the good or detriment of many. And once those mistakes were made she had to live with them. And she had to try and reconcile her actions with the Christian faith that counted so heavily in everyone's lives at the time. I think that what makes this story a classic are the grand, universal themes of the novel and how despite this being 14th century Norway, they can be transposed to any other time and place.
I read the final novel, The Cross, in just a week. All the loose threads from the first two novels were neatly woven together. Any confusions I had about the high politics of Norway and the character's involvement in them were made clear. The novel is beautifully written, or at the very least beautifully translated. Any fear I had about reading a book written originally in Norwegian in the 20s and set in Medieval times were ungrounded. You get a distinct sense of time, place, people and traditions all wrapped in an excellent story. I very highly recommend this novel and plan on rereading it myself.