The Unseen – Roy Jacobsen

(Tr. by Don Bartlett & Don Shaw)

“On rare occasions they find a message in a bottle, a mixture of longing and personal confidences intended for others than the finders […] and then they put the letters in a chest reserved for objects which can neither be possessed or discarded, and [they] boil the bottles and fill them with redcurrant juice, or else simply place them on the windowsill in the barn as a kind of proof of their own emptiness, leaving sunbeams to shine through them and turn green before refracting downwards and settling in the dry straw littering the floor.”

This is a novel of island life, the other, unseen kind of island life. There are no palm trees and sunbathers, no coral reefs and piña coladas. This life is a quiet one; an everlasting exchange with the land and the sea. It’s about the unseen effects of modernity and globalization on the inhabitants of a tiny island off the coast of Norway.

“Everything of value on an island comes from outside, except for the earth, but the islanders are not here because of the earth, of this they are painfully aware.”

With breathtaking images we follow the story of Ingrid Barrøy and her family on their island of Barrøy.  There is limited plot and the reader becomes an observer of life; a life overwhelming to the senses in it’s sheer beauty and harshness. The weather becomes a character too, the main character if you like, as it determines everything; it’s actions absolute. Our characters of Barrøy are reserved, somewhat reticent creatures and the novel becomes a stream of fleeting images rather than dialogue – of which I am thankful – because the dialect Jacobsen uses is a little odd. After the first third of the book I found it rather seamless, although I’m not entirely convinced it is needed. I could see it being jarring to some readers whilst deterring others altogether. At times it even seemed to nearly mock rather enhance the characters lives. (Though I’m sure this is unintended).

Jacobsen’s novel creeps up on you, steals your time and transports you to a place utterly unimaginable to a land dweller of the twenty first century. I even found it suspenseful at times as it veered off into mystery novel territory (the frequent storms and the scene with the intruder) only to tease the reader and slow back to its original pace. In it’s simplest form The Unseen is a daily chronicle of life in the arctic climate. It really is a visual pleasure.

“When the sun goes down in a sea of flames out there they can see the ram silhouetted against the red horizon, a tiny insect on a rocky raft afloat the sea.”

I enjoyed Ingrid’s coming-of-age plight and her trip over to Havstein was one chapter I couldn’t put down. In such a tiny corner of the world and her experience as outwardly different as it is is still inwardly universal. I also found myself loving Barbro the most. Two strong, enigmatic women steadfastly loyal to their little island.

“Ingrid can do almost anything. She can card eider down, arrange nets neatly in the tubs, bait lines, split fish – all men’s work – tie fish in pairs for drying – at a pinch women’s work – collect gull eggs, pick berries and lift potatoes, strangely enough both men’s and women’s work.”

Man Booker wise, Jacobsen’s novel, was effectively what I had hoped Fish Have No Feet would have been. We have strong women, portrayed excellently as both independent and endearing in their own ways. They are neither mad nor raging alcoholics. Granted we see some madness but it is neither limited to gender nor completely insatiable. The Unseen is a stunner of a story but definitely not for everyone. I’ve yet to read Compass (Mathias Enard) but with such beauties as Amos Oz, Samanta Schweblin and David Grossman, I’m glad I’m not deciding the winner.

“There isn’t a twelve-year-old in this world who can do more than Ingrid, she is a daughter of the sea, who doesn’t view the crashing waves as a danger or a threat, but as a means and a solution, for most things.”

The Unseen is a slow, quiet story, but nonetheless remarkable. 4/5 stars.

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