Summer at Little Lava: A season at the edge of the world by Charles Fergus

Originally published in June 2005, on my original 52 Books blog.

I chuckled when I first came across this book. The title, plain and serious as it is to an outsider, is unintentionally funny to an Icelander. Little Lava is the abandoned farm in NW-Iceland where Charles Fergus, his wife Nancy and son William spent the summer of 1996. But Little Lava, or Litla Hraun as it is known in Icelandic, is also a prison in southern Iceland. In fact, it’s THE prison - the one where the majority of Icelandic criminals are sent to serve out their sentences. Fergus even mentions it in the book, and it is probably the reason why he chose to translate the farm’s name into English, in order to distance it from the prison image. I can’t say he has quite succeeded, but gives the reader who is in the know something to smile about.

Fergus’ original plan had been to write a simple nature study, but when he found his mother murdered in her home, the plans changed. Instead of becoming just a place to stay for the summer, somewhere to live and take notes for the book he was going to write, Litla Hraun became a refuge from the world, a place where he could heal in peace and work to distance himself from the shock and his anger over his mother’s death.

The book is not what I would really call a travel book, and neither is it one of the “good life” books. The “simple life” would be nearer the mark, but even that doesn’t quote describe it. It a combination of nature observations and the story of a psychological healing process, interspersed with observations on Icelanders, their language, literature and folklore. It has some of the best descriptions of Icelandic nature and weather that I have read by a foreigner.

Rating: Recommended reading for anyone who wants to see a side of Iceland foreign visitors don’t often see. 4 stars.

Note: I recently discovered that the author's wife also wrote a book about their stay at Little Lava, which I am planning to read.

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