The Promise of Iceland

My memoir The Promise of Iceland was published by the University of Queensland Press in August 2011. The book tells a very personal family story of love, secrets and promises, and a life spent moving between Iceland, England, and Australia - the three plot points of my upbringing and enduring places of return.

In 2012, it was shortlisted for the Queensland Book of the Year Award.

Reviews of The Promise of Iceland

The Promise of Iceland is, in effect, that of Gislason's three strong formative loves. The first is his mother, an intriguingly complex and adventurous woman whom her son attempts to fathom with tremendous sensitivity and respect. Susan Reid (she was married before her liaison and kept her husband's name) had a passion for travel and, ultimately, Iceland became her dreamland. What Gislason does particularly well is make a case for the significance of place in people's lives, and indeed, his mother's love for the beauty of Iceland and the tight-knit community of its stoic, hard-drinking people is ultimately mirrored in his own. And further, Iceland's pull on him is bound up with his seemingly unrequited love for his father.


It's not usual for me to give the bones of a plot to readers--it's generally bad reviewing and spoils things for the reader. I've relented in this case because the plot is not really the meat of this narrative, which is how a young boy who's been raised in somewhat extraordinary circumstances grows into a highly perceptive and self-aware man, courageous enough to break the taboo surrounding his birth. What it illustrates clearly is the powerful need children have in most cases for the love of both their parents, and the necessity of loving them regardless of whether that love is judged by others to be undeserved. The journeys to Iceland, then, a country beautifully realised in the book's pages, are truly stations on the author's bumpy, if often amusing, road to healing and self-knowledge.

                     - Sara Dowse, The Canberra Times

Few countries are further apart than Iceland and Australia. Central to Kari Gislason's story is the secret of his paternity. His married Icelandic father insisted his British-Australian mother (with whom he had a seven-year affair) keep Gislason and the relationship a secret. Gislason spent his early years in Iceland before his mother went back to Australia. The Promise of Iceland is not only about Gislason's return to Iceland to meet his father but also about the search for, and meaning of, home. It dawns on Gislason that his father is inseparable from the stark landscape of Iceland. "The interior was only ever a feared and dangerous place - something like my father, I thought, and the mysteries of his interior life."

However, it is Gislason's portrait of his mother, Susan - her restlessness, her shyness, her dreams of elsewhere and her life in Iceland - that forms the spine of the memorable, finely crafted book.

                    - Fiona Capp, The Age ‘Pick of the Week’

"There are cycles within families, patterns in the generations, and there is a definite feeling of restlessness and uncertainty within mine," says Gislason..."There is also the business of inheritance, of asking what you are comprised of, and of finding ways through the chapters and secrets of your own story."

That story begins in 1970 with an ad in London's The Times newspaper for an English-speaking secretary. Gislason's mother answered the ad, secured employment among Iceland's Army of Foreign Secretaries and soon after found the arms of her secret lover. Gislason retraces her steps and then his own over the years, taking this moving family saga from Iceland to England, Sydney to Brisbane, as all the time the weight of his secret becomes heavier. It is an honest, contemplative and heartfelt journey across generations, landscapes and, appropriately for a land such as Iceland, the truth and mythology of family.

                    - Michael Jacobson, The Gold Coast Bulletin

Whether home is just the place we're born or a feeling we carry no matter where we end up, the age-old question remains: once you leave, can you ever go back? What if the decision to leave was not your own? Gislason's measured yet satisfying memoir charts his lifelong search for identity after leaving behind his birthplace of Iceland.

                    - Meredith Tate, Sun Herald

Shuttled back and forth between Australia, England and Iceland, Kári decided, at the age of 27, to defy his father’s plea for anonymity, and travelled to Iceland to introduce himself to the half-siblings and family he had never known. What led him to this decision, and what followed, is an engrossing account of love, cultural difference, and what it is to yearn for heima (to be at home).

Kári’s search for his father’s acknowledgement provides the narrative structure of this memoir, but the true delight of this book lies in Kári’s consideration of Iceland, Icelanders and their ‘specialisation in the painful love of one’s country’. Falling ‘hopelessly in love’ with Iceland himself, Kári sees in the small Nordic island the possibility of belonging; it is a substitute for his elusive father. He writes with an intrinsic understanding of what makes Iceland so winsome and beguiling, and his observations on the quirks of Icelanders are spot-on: their hostility to strangers, their desire for independence, their self-reliance and their inexplicable, powerful nostalgia for their homeland: ‘You could be homesick even when you were home.’

This is one of the better kinds of memoir – one in which the author is not only reflective, but also reflexive. Kári demonstrates an awareness of the fallibility of memory, of subjectivity, and his own shortcomings as a writer and son. He is an undoubted Icelandophile, but there is little fawning – his prose is direct but unhurried, and demonstrates those qualities he attributes to the Icelanders: self-deprecatory wit, profundity and a prying inquisitiveness into the lives of others.

                    - Hannah Kent, author of Burial RitesReadings

What could be a study in self-indulgence is instead a deeply charming account of displacement, of not really knowing where you come from and how that makes it difficult to know where you belong.

                    - Paul Donoghue, Sunday Mail ‘Book of the Week’

Gislason deftly weaves ideas of commitment, kinship, love and longing through his own story. A gentle soul who loves his mother dearly, Gislason admits to many mistakes in this revealing memoir. Landscape plays a large role in this gorgeously told tale, the extremes of the Australian landscape and the Icelandic one frame a tale of father, sons, lovers, betrayals, forgiveness and love. This is a quietly moving and effecting memoir by a first time Brisbane novelist. Highly recommended.

                    - Krissy Kneen, Avid Reader Magazine

Icelanders love their country so much they are homesick even when they are there. The sub-Arctic landscape exerts an almost irresistible pull on Kari Gislason, who was born in Iceland but grew up in Australia...Kari's story of repeated trips to Iceland, his career as an academic specialising in Nordic sagas, and his final meeting with his extended family of half brothers and sisters is a powerful memoir about landscape and identity.

                    - Penelope Debelle, Adelaide Advertiser

Kari’s descriptions of Iceland are so beautiful that one is tempted to pack up and go there. He makes the long, dark winters sound just as enticing as the extraordinary Northern Lights. Each time Kari returns to Iceland he finds new ways of viewing life.

Verdict : Adventure, history, family, love and sheer bliss.

                    - Bev Blaauw, Cairns Post

Describing Iceland as an “alternative universe”, Gislason skilfully questions the connection between parenthood and cultural belonging and asks where exactly “home” is.

                     - Australian Senior


                    - Fran Metcalf, Perth Sunday Times and The Courier Mail

This is a beautifully told journey by a man who was tracing his roots and discovering himself. The author was named after a character from one of the Icelandic sagas. He has written a doctoral thesis on concepts of authorship in medieval Iceland and currently lives in Brisbane. All his worlds have converged and this is his story about the directions and influences that empowered this. ... All the characters in his life are sincerely and perceptively portrayed and you will feel you know them all personally. The geographical and cultural details are illustrative and profound and this makes it all feel familiar.

                    - F. J. O'Dwyer, The Toowoomba Chronicle

With elegance and tenderness, Kari discusses the loves that have defined his life; thelove for his intriguing and adventurous mother, the secret and silent love for his father, and the love and longing for Iceland. While painting a spectacularly vivid portrait of the natural beauties of Iceland and its people, Kari explores the complicated nature of how people fall in love, the promises they make, and the reality of what happens when those promises fall apart.

All of those things make this a fabulous memoir, but what makes it unforgettable is the tremendous respect and grace in which Kari tells a story that is only in part his to tell. His sensitive portrayal of his mother as he shares the most intimate and defining moments of his family history is truly a wonder. Whilst a measure of bitterness towards his father would be justifiable and easily forgiven, Kari leaves it off the page, instead focusing on the delicate nature of the circumstances and the ultimate search for belonging.

Wise and unassuming, humorous and remarkably affecting all at the same time, The Promise of Iceland is an enchanting reflection of a fascinating life and a profound exploration of the human condition.

                    - Krysi Egan, Stilts

I wish I could write about Scotland the way Kári Gíslason writes about Iceland. In his quiet, restrained and I have to say magnificent memoir The Promise of Iceland he explores his love of the country, its landscape and culture, its flaws and what he misses. Better than that, he articulates a set of emotions I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to unpick and understand. The tension between wanting to be there and the feeling that sometimes it might be better that I’m not. That to have left the place has allowed me a better understanding of it, a deeper sense of respect and admiration and crucially a pragmatic and objective sense of clarity. I love Scotland the way Joyce loved and Kári loves their respective nations of birth.

I want to go back to Scotland, and I know that at some point I will, I’m just not sure how much and when. I also know I’ve talked about this on here before, but I wanted to consider this book because it helped me understand it, the need for home, better, to articulate the simultaneous occurrence of opposing emotions. The Promise… is a wonder filled read. As gentle and honest as it is forthright, as humorous as it is emotive and as smart as it is beautifully crafted. It’s little wonder it was the shining star at this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival and has since garnered the deserving and placid viking a multitude of accolades and fans and commissions all over the place.

                    - Lee McGowan,

You say writing is how you make sense of things. I think that too. And in reading The Promise of Iceland I felt powerfully, the unravelling of the messy, bitten off strings of your memory; in the beginning you were carrying this landscape around with you, Iceland, both real and imagined, a haunting place, that as readers we come to understand. You wrote about mountains which 'fell into the sea like splayed book covers', and I felt the words spilling, melting, the glacial like impenetrability of everything that wasn't said, the frozen edges, the cold secrets inside the warm things. That space you found yourself in, so close but so far, reminded me of Eliot's words - 'shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion'.

The Iceland of your heart was a confusing place, a place that resisted introspection but which also, inexplicably, felt like home. The journey you made in this book was hard, living it probably harder. You write that making a memoir can bring you closer to yourself but that 'you also lose some of the old certainties', the stories we tell ourselves and it is hard to be certain of what it is we think we know.

                    - Sally Breen, Open Letter in Stilts

The book’s title, The Promise of Iceland, expresses the way Gísli and Iceland become entwined in young Kári’s psyche, twin threads of his identity, both of which are denied him since his father won’t acknowledge him and his mother has taken him to live in Australia. The story traces Kári’s efforts, as he grows up, to disentangle his need for a father from his need for a home, and to reclaim both Gísli and Iceland.

What stands out for me about this book is the narrative voice. It’s honest, conscientious and, almost to the end, somewhat bewildered. It creates a saga-like feel: the hero is on a difficult quest with which onlookers, however sympathetic, cannot help because he has to do it himself. You feel like cheering when he succeeds.

                    - Andrew Baldwin, Writing Bar

The Promise of Iceland is a compelling narrative, exploring Gíslason's early life and providing a welcome insight into Icelandic culture. Many of the features appearing in other Icelandic books I've read are highlighted here, such as the small, closed society and the relative freedom of childhood.


The Promise of Iceland [is] an excellent work. Well written, fascinating and absorbing, the book pulls the reader along on Kári's search for closure and fulfilment, making us hope he can find the acknowledgement he's after.

                    - Tony's Reading List

A very touching story, how a promise made long ago has enduring consequences.Kari shares so much, from his love for his mother to the confusion of growing up without getting to know his father. This will resonate with many of us who grew up in fractured families, for whom the place we call home is never quite enough but no other place really feels quite right either. Kari's decision to break the promise of silence and contact his father's family would have taken great courage, and so was the decision to share his story with the world. Yet it's not a sad story, rather a story of strength, love and hope, and there are moments of wry humour. Reading Kari's story made me reassess some of the decisions I have made as an adult and a parent. How our choices, which may seem inevitable at the time, have such long lasting effects on the lives of those we love the most. Many times throughout the book I actually forgot this was a real story and not fiction. The writing transported me to a small, frozen community where reputation means so much. Yet the people who inhabit that world showed much warmth and generosity of spirit. A great read.

                    - Cath MacAdam, reader review on

Gíslason explores the significance of place in people’s lives; equating landscape with identity, finding homes to suit that stage of life. He, his relatives, his friends are constantly travelling, searching for a home, listening to the itchy feet that push you on. There is an intelligent, raw honesty in the story.

Kári Gíslason is a beautiful writer, modest and honest. He is a man searching for his father, and engaging with ideas of home, be it in people, or family, or the countries we live in. The answer never really is clear, but the openness and peace he finds in this not-quite-complete memoir (as he continues to live his life) shows the complexity and ongoing growth of a person’s identity and home.

                    - Booklines


"A very beautiful book." - Richard Fidler, ABC Conversations

"A wonderful family memoir set in an amazing location." - Kimberley Freeman, author of Wildflower Hil

"So beautifully written...I happened to be lucky enough to hear Kári speak at the Byron Bay Writers' Fesitval and I was so moved not only by his story but by the poetry of his writing." - Gina Baker, 4BC Live with Greg Cary and Gina Baker

In Conversation with Richard Fidler and Anita Shreve

Interviewed on ABC Sunshine Coast

Interviewed by Alan Donaldson

ABC Gold Coast Book Club interview

Interviewed by Fran Metcalf for "Page Turners"

Brisbane Ideas Festival lecture

Goodiwindi Argus feature article

Interviewed by Amanda Kendle here

Interviewed by

Morgunbladid feature article

Hlídarendi, southern Iceland