BOOK REVIEW / Norse racing: Vinland - George Mackay Brown: John Murray, pounds 14.95

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The Independent Culture
THE POETRY of George Mackay Brown is wellknown for its depiction of the rugged, sea-battered environs of Orkney, where the author lives. His new novel, Vinland (John Murray pounds 14.95), also has a central Orcadian theme. Set in Viking times, when Orkney was ruled by the Norwegian king, it follows the career of Ranald Sigmundson from his humble beginnings in Hamnavoe.

Ranald's father owns a cargo vessel. To escape the old skipper's violent outbursts, young Ranald jumps ship in Iceland and stows away in a craft commanded by Leif Ericson and bound for America (the Vinland of the title, with its excellent grapes). There the indigenous Indians are friendly until one of them is slain by a bellicose Northman: retreating into the forest, they wage a guerrilla war and force the dispirited Greenlanders to embark for home again.

Ranald is to remain obsessed by Vinland until his death. He returns to Greenland with Ericson and, in subsequent adventures, finds favour at the royal court of Norway, partakes in a terrible battle, marries, procreates and finally retires, disillusioned with humanity, to contemplate the new Christianity and plan a final voyage to the West.

In keeping with the Nordic subject matter, Mackay Brown's 'poetic' rhythms sometimes read like chunks of alliterative Germanic epic verse. But the digressive story is not compelling enough to sustain one's interest. If you want a ripping yarn and a clutter of difficult Nordic names, try Beowulf instead.