One of the greatest pleasures of shadowing a prize is the chance to encounter writers, often of long-standing, for the first time. Roy Jacobsen is a case in point: The Unseen is his thirteenth novel, and the fifth to be translated into English (by Don Barlett and Don Shaw). It appears with a title and cover suggestive of the horror genre, but is, in fact, firmly historical, set at the point in Norway’s past where modernity begins to threaten a way of life which has been handed down from generation to generation, around a hundred years ago.
This may be why Jacobsen chooses an island setting for his novel; islands typically lag behind the mainland, resisting or unaware of change. In a sense, the novel becomes two stories: that of life on the island, and that of the interactions the islanders have with the outside world. Only one family live on the island (and also use a number of smaller, surrounding islets), named, like the island, Barroy: Hans and Maria, their daughter, Ingrid, and Hans’ father, Martin, and sister, Barbro. They farm, sell eiderdown, and Hans also has a half-share in a fishing boat with his brother.
The chapters are short (there are 53 in total) and tend to focus on a particular moment, with time passing between them as necessary. One chapter may follow directly from the previous one, or there may be an unspecified gap. The opening chapter, which tells of Ingrid’s christening, and the second, which features her travelling in the faering with her father, give the initial impression that she will be the centre of the novel, but, though her coming of age is an important strand, this feels more like the story of a community. It’s told in a simple, authoritative tone:
“Whatever is washed ashore on an island belongs to the finder, and the islanders find a lot.”
This contrasts sharply with the speech of the characters, reproduced in a dialect which presumably mirrors the original Norwegian:
“Hva did A tell tha!”
This is a difficult call for a translator: if he uses a UK dialect he runs the danger of transposing the story to the UK; if he invents a dialect it may jar with the reader (or, worse, read like a fantasy novel!). Although I had some issues with the spelling (‘nu’ = new ‘heir’ = here) and the use of apostrophes (which only indicate it is another language spoken wrongly), I quickly became accustomed to the speech, and it was certainly important not to render it in standard English.
Intrusions from the mainland are rare, but often significant in the novel. When Hans hires some Swedish labourers to help him build a jetty, Barbro sleeps with one of them and falls pregnant. Lars becomes a sixth addition to the island’s population. When a further two children arrive later by other means, we begin to see the island as a refuge with an instinctive care for children which is seen to be lacking on the mainland.
Not all visitors are welcome, however. When an escaped convict arrives in a stolen boat, the islanders are at first paralysed by this unexpected event. The criminal sees this as a weakness he can take advantage of:
“I can see you’re simple folk who are not accustomed to people like me, I could do as I please here…”
The intrusion leaves its mark on the island:
“Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.”
This is, perhaps the ‘unseen’ of the title, though their fears do eventually fade.
Jacobsen seems to find the life of the islanders, though hard, attractive. In reference to planting the coast with evergreens he says:
“No, nobody would even consider doing this until the country attains such wealth that it is the process of going to rack and ruin.”
Yet the drive towards capitalism comes from within as well as without the island. For this reason I was reminded of the archetypal island novel, and exemplification of industry and Protestant work ethic, Robinson Crusoe. From the beginning Hans is set on making improvements to the island; some of these are for the comfort of the islanders, but others relate to increasing trade with the mainland. Towards the end, Ingrid takes on the mantle, negotiating prices for stockfish and eggs.
The Unseen vividly and convincingly places its reader on Barroy. Jacobsen brings the past to life with a level of detail – in particular a sense of how the past might feel – which makes me want to read his other historical novels. If the novel seems to stop rather than end, that too enhances its reality. As island life continues, unseen, the tides of history wash at its shore.