‘Eyes of the Rigel’ by Roy Jacobsen (Review)

Reading prize longlists isn’t always the most rewarding of tasks, but unearthing gems you’d never heard of before certainly makes the undertaking worthwhile.  That was definitely the case back in 2017, when amongst the books nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, I stumbled upon The Unseen, Norwegian writer Roy Jacobsen’s beautiful depiction of the struggles of a family living on a small island.  A sequel, White Shadow, appeared in English at the start of 2019, and today I’m looking at the culmination of what has become a trilogy, a novel that takes us far from the small island where we started the journey, but which stays close to what made the first book such a success.

Eyes of the Rigel (translated, once more, by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) picks up the story shortly after the events of White Shadow, with a new generation of the Barrøy family having returned to the island.  However, Ingrid is haunted by not knowing what became of the Russian prisoner-of-war Alexander, the father of her young daughter, Kaja, and with her cousin Lars now installed as the new master of the island, she decides that the time has come to find out.  Once winter is finally over, she packs a few things (including her infant daughter) and rows over to the mainland to follow the only trace she has of his movements.

This is the start of an epic journey, one that will take her across the border and back, through the mountains, over lakes and further than she ever thought she’d go.  However, the further she travels in the invisible footsteps of a man who may not even be alive, the more she wonders why she’s making the journey at all.  Having started out, it seems as if she’s not really clear about what she wants to find, and it isn’t long before what’s driving her on across the land is simply the momentum of a long walk she doesn’t know how to stop.

After the beauty of the island’s closed world, the confused war-time action of White Shadow never quite lived up to the original book, but with the appearance of Eyes of the Rigel, the importance of that second part as a bridge between the other two novels can be better appreciated.  The cryptic title refers both to ‘The Rigel’, the bombed ship Alex escaped from in White Shadow, and Kaja’s dark Russian eyes, a reminder of the father she never knew.  The people Ingrid encounters over the course of her travels seem to know nothing of the ship’s sinking, just one disaster in a war full of them, but the baby’s eyes are another matter, a concrete reminder of a man they may have seen years earlier.

At the heart of the novel is Ingrid, a wonderful character who we saw grow up in The Unseen and who became a woman during the events of White Shadow.  Now a mother in her thirties, she’s still defined by the fierce flame of her determination, forged on her harsh island home:

Yet her defiance is still intact, Ingrid’s defiance is born of the sea in the face of all these people who wish her so well, or themselves, it is difficult to say, defiance is a small hard ball of fury wrapped in woolly thoughts, the only question is whether this is enough.
p.129 (MacLehose Press, 2020)

Of course it is – those who have encountered her before will have little doubt that Ingrid won’t rest until she has answers, despite the occasional doubts.

If we’re sure about the pursuer, though, we can’t say the same about the man she’s looking for.  It isn’t long before Ingrid starts to realise that the youth she fleetingly knew may be very different to the image she has of him.  As she moves further from home, she senses more secrets, puzzled by the half-lies and omissions coming from the people she meets along the way, and there’s always a sense that there’s something she’s not being told, that *we’re* not being told.  Of course, these strangers are often trying to protect the mother and child from what they think to be unpalatable information, but Ingrid continues to  struggle, hoping to brush away away these strategic lies to find out the whole truth about the man she briefly loved, no matter how ugly it might be.

Truth is a major theme of Eyes of the Rigel.  Most readers will be here for more of Ingrid’s story, but in some ways the book is less about her than about the country she travels through.  This third part of the trilogy can also be read as a short epic of post-war Norway, depicting a country recovering from occupation and shrugging off the darkness of the war years.  Everywhere Ingrid goes, she sees the nation being rebuilt, road by road, town by town, and as we follow in her wake, we, too, get to see Norway emerging from the shadows of the war.

Yet reconstruction isn’t just a matter of money and hard labour – there’s also a mental side to the process.  Despite her experiences, Ingrid seems slightly innocent, having been sheltered from the worst of the atrocities, but she’s soon to learn that not everyone experienced the conflict in the same way:

“You’re walking along a road of bad consciences, my dear.”
“Hva?” Ingrid said.
Hübner answered – as far as she could make out – that the Occupation of Norway had been of a special kind, in many places it had been more like co-operation, it had tainted people, now they were washing away the stains, the country is cleaning its hands.  Yes, even many of those who did do something of value know that they could have done more, and they would prefer not to be reminded of it. (p.106)

She’s to meet several of these people on her journey, both those who helped resistance fighters and escaped prisoners across the mountains into Sweden, and those who took jobs as POW-camp guards to feed their families (and now find themselves exiled to dead-end jobs in the middle of nowhere).  None of this is forgotten, simply kept quiet – more than once we hear that the war isn’t over yet…

Jacobsen’s focus, though, is more on the good than the bad, and another major feature of Eyes of the Rigel is the kindness of strangers.  Few of those who meet Ingrid really believe in her quest, but the overwhelming majority are ready to assist her, even as they attempt to talk her out of carrying on.  This help might consist of a bed for the night, or food, or simply a nod in the direction of someone who might know where Alex’s journey took him next.  Ingrid’s notebook, meant to jot down important information, instead becomes a record of the people she meets, strangers who help her on her way and become indelibly lodged in her mind.  In this way, we have the flip-side of war-time collaboration, showing a better aspect of human nature.

Eyes of the Rigel is a very different book from The Unseen, but it’s excellent in its own right, with the two Dons once again bringing Jacobsen’s at times poetic prose into English.  It makes for a fitting end to a trilogy that started with a very narrow scope and expanded into a look at wider society, and I’m sure Norwegian readers would see even more in a book that ends up being a worthy examination of the effects on the country of the Second World War.  Ingrid is used as a representative of the nation, determined to find out what happened, but not to judge.  She has no need for revenge, just closure, and for the reader, that’s exactly what Eyes of the Rigel provides after a long, exhausting, but ultimately pleasurable journey 🙂

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