‘The Unseen’ by Roy Jacobsen (Review – MBIP 2017, Number 13)

It’s been a long journey, but our Man Booker International Prize longlist travels are almost complete, with the most recent leg seeing us leave our unhappy Danish friend behind.  A quick hop across the sea takes us to Norway, where (somehow…) we’ve gone back in time too.  Settle back and enjoy an extended stay on a small island as we get to know a family determined to keep their independence in a changing world.  The weather?  Well, it’s funny you should mention that…

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
– MacLehose Press, translated by Don Bartlett & Don Shaw
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

What’s it all about?
Pastor Johannes Malmberget, a man with no liking for the sea, takes a rare trip across to the small island of Barrøy, providing us with our first glimpse of the Barrøy family, the main characters of Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen. The first chapter introduces Hans, father, fisherman and island owner, along with his wife Maria, his aged father Martin and his ‘simple’, grown-up sister Barbro.  However, perhaps the most important of our new acquaintances is little Ingrid, Hans’ pride and joy, a girl whose life we will follow over the course of the book.

Over the next couple of decades, we see how life treats the island folk, with several deaths, births and (curiously enough) no marriages.  This is an era of change, a time of small improvements on the island and larger ones off it, and the reader is privy to everything the family experiences along the way.  The Barrøys are a rarity even for this period, a family almost outside mainstream society – but in a rapidly developing world, is it possible to stay that way?

Jacobsen is a new writer to me, and The Unseen is a book I’d never even heard of before the longlist announcement.  However, it’s the kind of book the MBIP is made for, an unsung gem that deserves greater exposure being introduced not just to the fiction-in-translation community but also to the wider reading public.  If I were to make comparisons here, the first name to come to mind would be fellow longlister Jón Kalman Stefánsson, albeit a calmer and less sardonic version. Certainly, there are similarities in style between the two, and the content, as you’ll see, is another example of the struggles of life in the cold north.

The focus of the novel is less an event than a person, as The Unseen is very much about Ingrid, following her growth from curious toddler to the new queen of the island.  After an infancy spent roaming her home, she heads off to the bigger island across the strait for school (which starts, sensibly enough, with swimming lessons), and along with the inevitable physical changes growing up brings, we sense a shift in character, too:

Strangely enough, even less happens on Barrøy in the following winters, the nights are so sleepless that she wonders whether she is ill, and stays in bed until her mother forces her to get up, she has nobody to love her here, Barrøy is unrecognisable with the monotonous murmur of the water and the wind, which she never noticed before, it is driving her insane, as is the screeching and squawking of the gulls, the oystercatchers and the eiders and the stupid cormorants, which stand like coal-black monks out on the skerry and turn their cowls to catch the wind, she will have to leave to work as a maid, she will.
But the world doesn’t want her.

pp.186/7 (MacLehose press, 2016)

Despite the hard economic times, Ingrid’s talents will soon find her work as a maid, allowing her a brief glimpse of the outside world.  It’s here, though, that we reach a turning point, one pushing the the second half of the novel in a slightly unexpected direction.

The changes in the novel aren’t confined to Ingrid.  There’s also the general progress of the age as Hans and his family set about improving their house and the fields on the small island, while also working on plans to build a boatshed and (eventually) a quay.  Changes come from the outside as well, with the addition of the island to the local milk run route and the construction of a warning beacon on the coast of the island.  However, the pull of modernity proves to be a double-edged sword, and the desire to better himself leaves Hans in danger of overreaching.  Ambitious plans require ready money, bringing debt and its potential risks in tow (a common Nordic theme: c.f. JKS’ trilogy, Halldór Laxness’ Independent People or Heðin Brú’s Faroese novel The Old Man and His Sons).  In the short term, comfort is gained, but there’s also a sense of independence being lost for ever.

Another of the focuses of the novel is on island life, idyllic one moment, terrifying the next.  With self-sufficiency impossible, Hans departs for several months each year to earn money to help the family to survive, but occasionally unexpected supplies wash up, in the form of jetsam.  These signs of life (or death…) from elsewhere are a stroke of luck for the islanders, even if they’re not always sure what to do with them right away:

With one final burst of energy they roll it up onto three skids so that it is clear of the grass, hammer four posts into the ground on either side, then drive iron pegs through them and into the wood.  And there this pillar lies today, one hundred years later, a great white cylinder beside the sea. (p.21)

It doesn’t always work like this, however, and the fortunes are often reversed.  Hans’ dreams of building up his kingdom are continually dashed as the winter storms knock his small buildings down again and again.  The sea giveth, and the sea taketh away…

As you can imagine, The Unseen is very much a book of nature, its people coexisting, not always peacefully, with the land and sea.  Jacobsen describes beautiful summers (swimming around the island, the hay harvest) and wretched winters, long and stormy:

She doesn’t like these storms, the creaking of the house and the trumpet blasts from the chimney, the whole universe in turmoil, the wind that tears the breath out of her lungs when she goes to the barn with her mother, that drives the moisture from her eyes and sweeps her into walls and bowed trees, and forces the entire family to camp down in the kitchen and sitting room, and even there they don’t get a wink of sleep. (p.56)

It’s little wonder that Hans always has an eye to improving the house, given the environment he lives in.  It’s a telling reminder of how lucky we are in our modern homes.

As appealing as the content of The Unseen is, the writing is every bit as important.  Another work mainly written in the present (or present perfect) tense, the book involves us in the narrative, pulling us in, an effect aided by the liberal use of comma splices (once again, there are hints of JKS here).  The most unusual part of the writing must be the invented dialect used to show the speech between the islanders.  Bartlett and Shaw have come up with their own method of reflecting the difficulties Norwegian readers would have with the local dialect used in the original work, a kind of semi-Nordic tongue, with suspicions of a Scots/Yorkshire hybrid.  It works surprisingly well, no more off-putting than anything you’d find in Eliot or Hardy, and is just one feature of a work that is, quite simply, beautiful to read.

While the story is narrated in the present, every so often there are clever switches to the past (as in the quotation above), reminders that this is all a story of a bygone age.  There are few major plot twists here, no dramatic disasters, just the usual events in the history of a family, be they joyous or tragic.  What we’re being shown here is exactly what the title promises – the unseen, the people who don’t make history, but merely live it.  We end as we start, with a family living on a small island; the cast is a little different, as are the circumstances, but it’s still the same family.  However, there is one major difference.  The Barrøys are now familiar faces, and that’s all due to Jacobsen and the two Dons 🙂

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Yes!  Ever heard of saving the best for last?  Rather apt here.  I won’t go as far as to claim that it’s my favourite book on the longlist, but it’s pretty close…

Why did it make the shortlist?
In many ways, this is a typical shortlist book: well-written, well translated, a joy to read and a window into a different culture and era.  There’s a real positive buzz around this book, and I suspect that it has a very good chance of taking out the whole thing come June.

And that’s it!  Our Booker travels are done for another year, and we can finally go home for some well-earned rest.  Next week will see the announcement of the shadow shortlist when you’ll be able to see just how close (or divergent) the views of the official and shadow panels actually are.  No doubt you’ve determined my views from the reviews I’ve posted, but I’m just one of eight shadow judges, so there may be a surprise in store yet…

…but that’s all in the future.  For now, I’ll just bid you a fond adieu and invite you to book a ticket for next year’s trip around the literary globe.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year’s travels – I hope you all had fun along the way, too 🙂

8 thoughts on “‘The Unseen’ by Roy Jacobsen (Review – MBIP 2017, Number 13)

    1. Stu – But far better than that (although I noticed that Charlotte Collins won a translation prize in the US for it the other day…).


  1. Looking forward to the shadow jury verdict.

    Obviously Mirror, Shoulder, Manoeuvre will be replaced by something – anything! – from the rest of the list, but otherwise will be interesting to see where you differ from the official list.

    I am going to guess: Compass, Fever Dream, The Unseen, Bricks & Mortar, Judas, Swallowing Mercury

    From my read of the various reviews (although some panellists have been more explicit than others on their relative views so my summary likely overweight their views) I would say:

    Definitely on the shadow shortlist – Compass, Fever Dream, The Unseen (I think the shadow winner will be one of these three)

    Likely – Bricks & Mortar, Judas

    6th place between – Swallowing Mercury, Traitor’s Niche, Fish Have No Feet

    Outsiders – Black Moses and – shockingly! – Horse Walks Into a Bar

    Very unlikely- Mirror Shoulder Manoeuvre, Explosion Chronicles, War & Turpentine

    Liked by 1 person

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