Set against the harsh and brutal backdrop of an Icelandic winter, it charts a journey as seen through the inquisitive and steel-trap mind of a boy who's on the cusp of manhood and out of kilter with the world around him.
Living in a small fishing village at the turn of the 19th century, it is his ambition to be master of his own destiny, but he soon finds his path irrevocably intertwined with that of another: postman Jens, a gruff loner who stumbles into the boy's lodgings half dead, having been frozen solid to his horse.
Jens must deliver his next consignment of mail on time or face losing his job. The boy is thus commandeered to assist him in his insurmountable task. Together they embark on a perilous passage through treacherous and deadly landscapes, across frothing seas, through howling winds and blinding snow, staring death in the eye and encountering the forms of long-since perished souls which rise up out of the endless blizzards.
The fragile, blossoming and complex bond between the main protagonists is played out in beguiling manner. While Jens brusquely asserts "You're alone, I'm alone, so there is no 'we' in any of this", there is a lip-biting tenderness in his care for the boy and vice versa, each saving one another in countless ways.
Stefansson's background as a poet is palpable in the rhythm and lyricism of his words. "There are no birds here, no foxes, hardly a field mouse, there's just the two of them, the snow and possibly a dead farmer with a teenage boy in his arms," he writes of his bleakly foreboding yet mesmerising canvas.
He captures the sublime essence of the land in a manner that bears echoes of Thomas Hardy's Return Of The Native or Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the icy climes of an Icelandic precipice teetering on the edge of the world his equivalent of Egdon Heath or the Mearns, where tragedy and triumph unfold.
Granted, this isn't a book best read on a blazing sunny August afternoon, rather better suited to a log cabin with a roaring fire and snow piling up against the windows. The bone-chilling cold leaps off almost every page and wraps itself around the reader.
"They plod on, feel fatigued but cannot stop; nowhere is there shelter, the toil keeps them fairly warm but their fingers grow cold, their feet grow cold and their toes grow numb and whimper, like small animals," writes Stefansson. "The snow pounds the boy from all sides, presses its way in through every slit and whirls up into his face, which has long grown stiff from cold; he could hardly speak even if he tried, it's nearly as stiff as hers, resting easy in her coffin, letting them see to her needs."
For Stefansson, death is as omnipresent as life itself, and he unflinchingly tackles their uneasy relationship. "There's death and then there's death; two very different types," he writes. "A dead sheep is dead, same goes for a fish, but a man can't die as easily."
To the same end, the author eloquently harnesses an overwhelming sense of enormity and vastness in a way that serves as pertinent reminder that we are all but mere specks on this sprawling planet. Ultimately, this is a story of life, love and those left behind. It is a tale punctuated by the stark spectrum of human foibles, but equally one of strength, victory and selflessness in the face of adversity. The dizzying climax will leave you breathless.