Title: The Unseen*
Author: Roy Jacobsen
Genre: Fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book at Norli.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: In 1913, Ingrid Barrøy is born on Barrøy island off the coast of Helgeland, Norway. Her family is poor and subject to the forces of nature, but they’re hardworking and strong-willed. Island life is a constant struggle that pays very little, and when Ingrid comes of age she is sent to the mainland to work. But tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must again return to fight for her island and her home.
* I read this in its original language (Norwegian) under the title “De Usynlige”.
“Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow.”
– The Unseen, Roy Jacobsen
“The Unseen” is another book that I’ve wanted to read ever since it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year, and by the time I got my hands on a copy it had also been shortlisted. I have to admit I read very little Norwegian literature as I generally prefer to read English language books (original and translated). However it’s been refreshing to switch to another language for a bit, so I hope I can pick up more Norwegian books in the future that I can share with everyone.
This book is set on the fictional island Barrøy off the coast of Helgeland, between 1913 and 1928. Part a coming of age story, part purely a description of Norwegian nature, and part a little piece of Norwegian history, it follows Ingrid as she grows up in a poor fishing-farming family, which is the sole family living on the island. Life is a struggle that is often amplified by the harsh weather conditions, and Ingrid’s transition into her teens (basically adulthood) is nowhere near easy. Ingrid’s character is one of my favorite things about this novel. She is introspective and wise beyond her years, but also curious and resourceful. As an islander you are invisible, or “unseen”, both in isolation at home and as an outsider on the mainland, and Ingrid alone connects all the different aspects and contrasts about island life.
This is not a plot-driven novel, nor is it dialogue-driven, and I’m really thankful for the latter as the dialogue definitely was my least favorite aspect about this. Pretty much all dialogue is written in a local dialect. It definitely adds to the realism but first of all, this isn’t a dialect I myself speak or even hear very often, and secondly, most interactions fell a little flat overall. While I understood it, it took some time getting into. I don’t have anything against the dialect per se, it just immediately seems a bit unapproachable in written form, especially if you’re not used to it. Personally though, I like the English translation of the dialect even less than the original. The examples I’ve read seemed to me somewhat clumsy and even harder to understand, and sometimes I felt like they leaned more towards a parody than an actual dialect. Fortunately however, these Norwegians are mostly taciturn (and maybe that’s why the dialogue is the way it is).
As mentioned there is also very little plot to speak of, and all events and plot-elements that do exist are introduced in a way that is straightforward and matter-of-fact. I personally think this adds to the imagery and especially complements the characters – these are hardworking, pragmatic people who allow the weather (almost a character in itself) to constantly knock them down because they know it’s inevitable. All they have to do is wait for the storm to pass and then rebuild, there is no other choice if they want to survive, and as I see it there is very little room for agonizing drama because it would simply be out of character. But if you find yourself bored by the descriptive quality of the novel and the characters themselves in the first place, then chances are you’ll find it rather dull overall.
To sum up, this novel is about interpersonal relationships and personal tragedies against the backdrop of ruthless weather. It’s the story of wild nature alongside the story of hard work and daily life, and Jacobsen does a great job at telling it. Recommended if you’re interested in a quiet read that is both simple and honest, and if you’re looking for something a little bit different, whether it’s a different setting, a different culture, or different characters.