Some years ago I visited the northwestern peninsula of Iceland, the Westfjords, and looked out to sea. Greenland lies only a few hundred kilometres from Iceland and on clear days you can make out the New World from the Old World. Or so I had been told. For what visitors actually see is not the ice or rock of North America but a Fata Morgana, a mirage created by the refraction of light when passing through pockets of air. Fata Morganas are in fact common in Arctic regions and may explain sightings of so-called phantom islands in the 19th century. Like shadows, Fata Morganas are distorted versions of the objects they represent: a single ship may become a fleet; an island may be turned upside down.
Fata Morganas, mirages and even ghosts populate Sarah Thomas’s latest book, a memoir of her time in the Westfjords. On one level, The Raven’s Nest is easy to place: it’s the story of a love affair with an Icelandic man, their dogged attempt to build a life together and the eventual breakdown of their marriage. Yet it is about much more than a relationship between two people. Thomas, a well-travelled filmmaker who grew up in Kenya, seeks to settle in one of the remotest parts of Europe, home to a close-knit community with strong ties to the land. The Raven’s Nest is less a break-up confessional than a quiet, generous and beautifully written meditation on what it means to try to belong to a singular culture on the ‘edge’ of Europe.
A strip of land attached to the rest of the mainland, the Westfjords peninsula is highly insular. Quite distinct from the rest of Iceland, its deep fjords call to mind the landmass to which it was once connected, Greenland, rather than the volcanic geology typical of Iceland. Despite recent