Roy Jacobson – The Unseen


Barroy Island off the coast of Norway is the home to one small family. Here, subject to extremes of wind and sea, they struggle to provide for themselves. Hans and his father work together, not always easily. As the power slides from the senior man to his son, clashes are inevitable. Hans’ wife, Maria is also a feisty character, and their daughter Ingrid, even at the age of three is a being to be reckoned with.  There is also Hans’ sister Barbro described by one possible employer as ‘the imbecile’. They reject that employer for her and another seemingly kinder one. This proves to be a  wise move, as Barbro shows how hard she can work, and she becomes an essential factor in some of their most daring achievements.

Their environment can be quite beautiful

He stops and looks at the sun in the north-west, it has become pale and hazy and will soon be a moon, night is approaching, and he wonders whether to repair the scythe at once or get a few hours’ sleep before the dew falls in Rose Acre next morning; the dew always forms first in Rose Acre, where a strange red grass grows.

Or wild and threatening. Then, after the sea calms, they can go out seeking detritus washed up on their shores. Sometimes they find fishing nets that can be repaired, cork barrels or glass floats they can reuse, but all too often

they find rubbish.

They find dead porpoises and auks and cormorants full to bursting with stinking gases, they wade through rotting seaweed and find parts of shoes and a hat and an armband and a crutch and fragments of distant lives, testimony to opulence, laxity, loss and carelessness, and misfortune which has befallen people they have never heard of and will never meet.

Roy Jacobsen’s wonderful book, written in Norwegian and translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw is a beautiful and compelling read about  resourcefulness in the face of extreme difficulty, and the push of ambition in limited circumstances. The characters are all winning in their different ways and the story of how their little community grows is deeply moving. Life, birth and death all play their part here. And that rare happening, silence…

We talk about the calm before the storm, we say silence can be a warning, a call to action, or that it might mean we have to search in the Bible for a considerable time to understand its import. But silence on an island is nothing. No-one talks about it, no-one remembers it or gives it a name, however deep an impression it makes. It is the tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.

And that is what this book provides, a glimpse into lives and deaths very far from our own, but lived with courage and acceptance.

This book is the first of a trilogy about Barroy Island, the next two books are White Shadow and The Eyes of the Rigel and ultimately ask questions about Norway’s actions during World War 2 seen through the struggles of Ingrid whom we first meet as a little girl in The Unseen.

Remarkable writing and not to be missed.

16 thoughts on “Roy Jacobson – The Unseen

    1. No he is just a lovely choice outside my curriculum. I love Norwegian writing and Jacobson is a new discovery for me.
      I am slogging away at A Suitable Boy,this month’s set text Great fun but a big read at 1300 pages.

      1. 1300 pages — I am deeply impressed. I am finishing up a review of a book about childhood hunger (“Within Our Grasp: Childhood Malnutrition worldwide and the Revolution Taking Place to End It”), written by one of my MFA mentors. It’s about 260 pages, and has taken me a week, with everything else, to comprehend it well enough to write a review. Looking forward to hearing about your ambitious project!

  1. I’m so delighted to see a review of this from you! It’s a book that’s been languishing on my kindle for several years, bought on impulse in one of those terribly tempting 99p daily deals. (I’ve since moved right away from the evil Amz for obvious reasons.) Anyway, returning to the novel itself, it was the promise of Jacobson’s prose style that attracted me to it. The quotes you have selected certainly confirm my impression – the writing is beautifully, even when dealing with dark subjects. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.

    1. Yes the writing and the characterisation are beautifully judged, clear and authentic Jacobson is up there with the best Norwegian writers, Petterson, Haivoll et al
      Per Petterson has a new novel coming out in August, Men in My Situation .

  2. It sounds interesting Gert. I’m currently reading Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (third book of The Outlander). I’m afraid I’m hook on the series.

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