Sjoholm gives readers vibrant characters whose personal travails are all the more engrossing for the cultural upheavals that energize them. An entertaining, thoughtful story of old-fashioned romance, complicated by dawning modern mores. –Kirkus Reviews
Emilie Hansen, called Nik by her family, is a fourteen-year-old tomboy who spends her time dreaming and fossilizing on the nearby island of Fur, a geologic marvel. Her older sister, Maj, is studying to be a teacher and starting to entertain ideas of women’s rights introduced by her Swedish friend, Eva Sandström.
The summer of 1887 begins with a visit from the girls’ aunt, who brings with her from Copenhagen a young man she calls her foster son. Carl Nielsen, from a poor family, has just finished at the Royal Conservatory of Music and plans to become a composer. Flirtation turns to a secret romance between Nik and Carl, as Maj weighs an engagement to Lieutenant Frederik Brandt against her intense friendship with Eva. The following summer brings the sisters’ intertwining stories to a head during a month in Copenhagen with their aunt, where they juggle passion, jealousy, and violent events with their search for independent lives of their own.
Fossil Island, and its sequel The Former World, is inspired by the true story of Denmark’s greatest composer, Carl Nielsen, and by the life of Emilie Demant Hatt, who later became an artist and ethnographer in Lapland.
Sjoholm’s secondary characters are uniformly well drawn, and her small cast of main characters breathe with vitality and human complexity. Her skill at rendering the society of a forgotten Denmark somehow makes that world feel both particular and universal. These are thoughtful, glitteringly intelligent novels, as shrewd about shifting social conditions as they are about the workings of the human heart. Either book can be read and enjoyed separately, and together they form a treat readers will re-read with pleasure. Very strongly recommended. —Editor’s Choice, Historical Novel Review
Fossil Island reads as well as any Jane Austen novel, but its political themes and social commentary really matter to the 21st-century reader. As in an Austen book, the characters are engaged with house parties, daily activities, relationships and, always and especially, conversations. However, this novel not only offers an insightful, engaging view of personal manners, social mores and romantic love, but also it deals with the politics of manners, mores, and love. In particular it illuminates the social history of women of the time, including lesbians and other women who wanted to live independent lives. Fossil Island brought to mind the wonderful and internationally acclaimed historical novels of Sarah Waters. Fossil Island, like Waters’s books, made me gasp out loud at its plot turns. The characters are so richly drawn, so compellingly human and difficult and funny and likable, and their interactions so humanly complicated, so impossible and so tender, that I think any fiction reader or history lover will read this, as I did, with avid enthusiasm.” —Gillian Kendall, author of How I Became a Human Being
Barbara Sjoholm transports us to Denmark in the 1880s, a time when traditional customs and ideas were giving way to new technology and modern thinking, and enchants us with the story of a girl’s first love. Fossil Island captures beautifully the conflicting worlds the young lovers Carl and Nik move between: the harmony and lazy rhythms of village life on Jutland’s Limfjord, the dissonance and hectic tempos of Copenhagen. Nik experiences these disparate worlds with the apprehension and excitement of adolescence. In the city and the countryside she listens to young men and women debate the new ideas, but it is in the city that Nik meets women who, by living life on their own terms, will make history and guide her on her own path: artists, writers, musicians, even her older sister’s feminist classmate who sails to America in search of work and adventure. Fossil Island is a book to savor—you won’t want to put it down, you won’t want it to end.
—Katherine Hanson, Ph.D., editor of An Everyday Story: Norwegian Women’s Fiction
Cedar Street Editions, paperback, 288 pages, $18.00. Ordering information.