Review: The Unseen

by Roy Jacobsen, trans. Don Bartlett & Don Shaw
published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus Books [August 2016]
My rating *****
The Unseen.png
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

The Unseen is a powerful evocation of the lives of a family living on Barroy, a tiny, remote Norwegian island at the beginning of the last century. Against a background of extreme poverty their lives are harsh and simple, but despite ‘a dark disposition, they are beset not with fear but solemnity.’ There is a sense of time passing very slowly, of lives being lived on the island over hundreds of years; even the location of their house is ‘the product of collective inherited wisdom, built on bitter experience.’ These are the ‘unseen’, the ordinary people.

The family is small: Hans (the father, ‘a human machine’ keen to improve their lives), his sister Barbro (who has learning disability but is a hard worker), his wife Maria (who came from a different island and yearns to go back) and his father Martin, (who is aging and always angry), ‘his great hands resting like empty, immovable shells on his knees.’ Then there is Ingrid, the daughter, a laughing, carefree five year old who develops ‘a strange gravity’ as she becomes a young woman repeating but altering the patterns of her parents. There are occasional visitors but they ‘create a loss’ and those left behind learn ‘the island’s slow lessons in loneliness.’ When Hans arranges for their milk to be collected and sold, the family becomes ‘a name on the map, they are visible.’ But it’s Ingrid who by the end of the novel, makes the family financially secure and, symbolically, paints the house white so that ‘there wasn’t an eye that couldn’t see it.’ The family is no longer ‘unseen’, reflecting the huge changes in ordinary lives that take place during the 20th century.
The island is rarely quiet. We think of The Tempest – ‘the isle is full of noises’ but on Barroy they are not ‘sweet airs that give delight’, they are the sounds of howling winds and the severe storms that batter the island; as well as the constant sound of the sea. When there is silence it is ‘a tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.’
The Unseen is told simply with almost monotonous detail about processes: construction, farming, cutting peat, mending nets and drying fish or collecting down from eider ducks. The translators have invented their own dialect to reflect how the islanders speak to each other: ‘Hva did A tell tha!’ Hard pithy exchanges. Inner life and introspection are rare – there is too much to do to afford the luxury of ‘self’, and such instances are usually bound up with a sudden appreciation of the beauty of the island, the very fact of being alive. ‘The next day the sea was calm. The sky was blueish black and as lustrous as a luminescent sea.’
Jacobsen’s language, in this fine translation from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett & Don Shaw, is spare and plain, echoing hard physical lives pitted against the elements; but it is shot through with a yearning beauty: ‘if you hold a ball of uncarded down in one hand and a ball of carded down in the other you cannot bear the thought of not cleaning it all, it would drive you mad if you didn’t remove the small bits of twig and grass and shell, you would rather die than suffer that.’
By the end of The Unseen, there is an overwhelming sense of the repeating patterns of human existence: people work, have children, then grow old or lose their grip on reality and die; they return to the earth, and become part of the island. Then the cycle begins again. But this is not a depressing novel: the iteration of their unrelenting, daily struggle in this harsh but beautiful environment, ultimately has a cumulative effect which is extraordinarily moving.


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