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by sigrid undset
translated by tiina nunnally
minnesota, 336 pages, $17.95

Oh, to be married in the Middle Ages! Your parents would select your spouse. Relatives and the local lord would consider and approve the choice; the clergy would do likewise and bless the bond before God and family, parish and town. You’d know what to expect about the rest of your life because almost everyone around you had done or would do the same, as would your children and their children. Stability, harmony, belonging, continuity—or so we like to think.

One of the virtues of Sigrid ­Undset’s Vows, newly translated by Tiina Nunnally, is that it punctures this sentimental view. Like the books in Undset’s more famous Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, Vows (the first novel in a tetralogy) is set in medieval Norway. But the situation it describes is in certain ways remarkably ­contemporary.

Vows follows the chaotic romance of young Olav and Ingunn. If they had Facebook, their relationship status would be “It’s complicated.” Before Olav’s father dies, he asks his friend Steinfinn to adopt and raise his young son. Steinfinn agrees, and then, to demonstrate his steadfastness, promises that Olav will someday marry his own daughter, Ingunn. Olav is never fully at home or certain of his place, and his expectation of his future marriage to the quiet little girl who hangs around him as he plays on her father’s lands becomes the defining feature of his life:

He could no more think of parting ways with her whenever she approached and wanted to be with him than he could part ways with himself. That was how things stood for Olav Audunssøn, that was his fate; he would be with Ingunn forever.

In due course, childish roughhousing becomes more ­ambiguous and then sensual as the pair reaches adolescence. Olav decides that since they’re definitely going to be married, they might as well act the part. Ingunn quietly disagrees but nonetheless gives in to him. After a premature consummation, violent and fire-filled clashes between noble houses play out around them. The chaos is increased by a deathbed ­decision: Steinfenn releases the couple from the obligation to marry, in part because the changed fortunes of the two families have made the match less advantageous. It’s an ironic reversal, more critical of modern mores than their medieval equivalents: The dying patriarch urges the young people under his authority to make their own decisions, while those young people have already started living their lives in fidelity to the decision he made for them.

Despite their newfound freedom, the two remain devoted to each other. Olav is convinced that, in every sense but the sacramental, he’s already married to Ingunn. He seeks support from his local bishop. After sarcastically assessing the young man as a very impatient kind of faithful husband, the bishop agrees that the two should be married only to each other: “You are now bound, under threat of mortal sin, to live together until death.” He also all but commends them for trying to live out, however imperfectly, the commitments that older people made on their behalf and didn’t uphold. The bishop also agrees to help with needed reconciliations with those who have been either scandalized by the affair or not in favor of the marriage for self-serving reasons.

While awaiting this recon­ciliation, Olav gets in a fight related to reputation and virtue and is forced into exile. The novel’s plot only gets more complicated from there. It involves years of Olav’s working his way up in the world, at a distance from Ingunn and in the service of an intriguing noble. He does this in order to return and make amends for his violent deeds and finally, fully marry Ingunn.

Meanwhile, Ingunn waits and waits and waits, having been sent away in shame from her family home. She becomes a bit of a Nordic Penelope, heroically fending off fresh suitors until her ski-wearing ­Odysseus returns, if also a bit like a gloomy and overwrought spinster-in-training. She’s subject to taunts and pressures from family and friends who think little of Olav and less of her adamant, often tearful refusals to abandon him.

When, finally, Olav is able to marry Ingunn, he instead becomes enraged when she describes the ­situation she’s in because of one particular suitor. This leads to more crying, more departures and reunions, and more violence—all of which become tiresome in a relentless interplay of melodramatic listlessness and wooden quarreling.

Despite growing resentment and even destructive rage and competing resentments, Olav and Ingunn do not abandon their bond. Why? It might be tempting to say that Vows affirms the firmness and fortitude of ­medieval love, but their story strikes me as more modern. Amidst the breakdown of the familial and communal structures that Olav and Ingunn were born into, believed in, and were told to obey, these young people discover they can rely only on the vows they make to themselves, and sometimes to each other.

Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English and vice-dean of Undergraduate Studies in Arts and Science at the University of Toronto.