Islands lend themselves to metaphor — an island is both a microcosm of the entire world and a dramatization of the isolated inner self of an individual person. In his novel “The Unseen,” Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen plumbs the literal and metaphorical implications of the remote Norwegian island of Barrøy, a place finding itself due, in the early 20th century, for a reckoning with modernity.
An island, he writes, “is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow” and where “everything of value […] comes from outside, except for the earth.” On this particular island, three generations of the stunningly self-sufficient Barrøy family — Martin, the grandfather; Hans, Martin’s son, and Hans’ wife, Maria; Hans’ sister, Barbro; and Hans and Maria’s daughter, Ingrid — struggle to exist in a place that’s as harsh and unforgiving as it is gorgeous and sublime.
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett — translator of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” as well as novels by Jo Nesbø and Per Petterson — and Don Shaw, “The Unseen” was shortlisted for both the 2017 International Man Booker Prize and the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award. A laconic and affecting story about fate and love, time and survival, the book is a quiet and sturdy masterpiece.
The myriad ways Jacobsen finds to describe the landscape astonish, letting the reader see the singularity of the place and feel the difficulty of living so close to the Arctic Circle. Each winter when the men depart for their annual catch, those left behind learn “the island’s slow lessons in loneliness,” mindful of the fact that their loved ones “are dicing with death” for “more than two hundred men lose their lives every winter.”
The wind and waves are an ever-present concern in the islanders’ minds. Their isolation renders them exquisitely aware of the subtle shifts of emotion that beset them, as when Ingrid notices, coming of age, that “it was no longer heartbreaking to say goodbye to her father” when he left to go fishing; “At most it was sad.” Or when she realizes later still how much the island is a part of her, how it was “always with her even when she wasn’t there,” an unbreakable connection that drives the book’s unhurried and magisterial plot.
“Whatever is washed ashore on an island belongs to the finder, and the islanders find a lot,” notes Jacobsen. For his part, Jacobsen finds a great deal of profound value in his observations of the courageous and dignified inhabitants of Barrøy, all told in spare language that seems simultaneously as straightforward and natural as the drifting tides and as carefully woven as one of his islander’s nets.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and the forthcoming “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel of World War I.”
By: Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw.
Publisher: Biblioasis, 268 pages, $22.95.
Note: The publication date for this book has moved to May 5.