The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi
Outskirts Press (2020)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (1/2021)
Jeanne Blanchet’s “The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi” is a fictional imagining of the life of Otzi, a 5,300-year-old mummy which was discovered preserved in ice in 1991 in the Italian Alps. Upon his birth, a shaman foretold of a glorifying prophecy: he would travel far, learn, and disseminate new knowledge to many cultures, and endure throughout countless generations. Gisla, Otzi’s mother, made it her mission to impart this vision to her son to inspire him to rise to accomplish the glorious things the shaman perceived. Struggling to emerge out of his older brother’s shadow as a young boy, Otzi falls under the tutelage of his uncle, Frizi, and becomes a skilled tradesman. During his resplendent career he meets numerous peoples of different tribes and regions, learns of new materials, and has children of his own. Otzi will also face strife, however, as he begins to feel the beginnings of arthritis in his bones as a young man, endures avalanches and even is taken captive. Overall, his passion for trade will kickstart his destiny and, therefore, make the old shaman’s prophecy a reality.
“The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi” immediately called to me. I studied Anthropology and Archaeology in college, so I am quite familiar with Otzi and the events surrounding the mummy’s discovery. Historians, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists have been working to piece together this mysterious man’s life for decades now, with very few artifacts and evidence to go on. Though the glacier he was entombed in for 5,300 years helped preserve Otzi’s body wonderfully, nature still, unfortunately, likely erased a lot of clues that might have further helped establish who Otzi really was, where he came from, and how and why he truly died.
“The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi” is quite a realistic imagining of who this man might have been. Little is known still about a lot of the early humans who inhabited the lands of Europe in pre-historic times, so it was important that the author both invent a compelling character while also trying to stay true to the history that is known. The idea that there was a wide network of tribes across the Italian Alps that, though spread far apart and speaking different languages, still functioned as a successful trading enterprise is one of the most fascinating aspects of this period of history. In modern times, language barriers can often become hard-stops in business, and even casual, negotiations. The fact that ancient peoples and tribes could interact peacefully and tactfully in order to create mutually beneficial trading relationships shows that as long as humans strive to try to work together and find common ground, understanding can be found pretty much anywhere.
I did find that sometimes the pacing in “The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi” felt inconsistent in some places. There were some instances where several chapters would span the course of a few months or a year, whereas in others one chapter might encompass several years at a time. This made it hard at times to discern where Otzi was in his lifeline: child, teenager, or adult. For instance, it was a little jarring when Otzi started discussing his desire for children, because at the time I thought he was still a very young teenager. It wasn’t difficult to find my bearings, but some readers who rely on distinct timelines might have trouble.
Overall, “The Iceman: A Novel of Otzi” is really a phenomenal example of how history and fiction can fit well together. When a historian or an archaeologist look at notes and evidence, a lot of what we do sometimes feels like piecing together pieces of a story. History is a narrative in and of itself, which means that sometimes turning to fiction as a mode to flesh out ideas may actually help in furthering historical research and discovery. I am glad to see this niche of the genre blossoming more in the last several years and would recommend Blanchet’s book to any avid history lovers out there.