Book review: Don’t miss “Unseen”

The cover of

Thor A. Larsen
Fishkill, N.Y.

Roy Jacobsen has written over 20 books since his first in 1982. Included are short story collections, including his first, Prison Life, a biography on Trygve Bratteli, plus more than 10 novels. The subjects of the books are diverse, including two based on WWII (Borders and Burnt-Out Town of Miracles); otherwise, the themes seem mostly to be about life away from large cities.

Jacobsen has been rewarded with many literary honors and prizes for his works, but perhaps the greatest accolades have been for his latest work of fiction to be translated into English. The Unseen made the shortlist for The Man Booker International Prize 2017. (The prize ultimately went to David Grossman of Israel for his novel A Horse Walks into a Bar).

The Unseen is about the challenges of a family living on their own on a small island off the western coast of Norway in the first half of the 20th century. They represent other similar situations on neighboring islands. If any of our readers have traveled by boat along the Norwegian coast and seen the arrays of islands and the turbulent weather of wind and rain even during the summer, they can appreciate the daily challenges these tough individuals must face.

As an aside: as I read this book, I was reminded of the Norwegians and Swedes who came to America in the late 1800s and settled on homesteads in the Midwest. These families were also on their own, self-sufficient, enduring the hardships of the winter and even of the hot summers.

There have been mixed reviews of this book due to its relatively slow pace in the first half. Personally, I enjoyed the writing style with its descriptive language, relatively fast pace, and short focused chapters.

The story covers about 15 years in the lives of the Barrøy family, which undergoes transitions and tragedy and yet demonstrates their ability to survive and grow. The story evolves from the initial family unit of a grandfather, Martin; his son Hans and daughter-in-law Marie; their daughter, Ingrid; and Hans’s sister, the unmarried Barbro. Ingrid is three years old in the beginning of the story.

One view of the story is the evolution of Ingrid as she grows and the responsibilities she acquires. Living alone on this island, the Barrøy family has defined tasks for every family member. Hans leaves the island for a few months in the winter to fish in Lofoten with his brother. This fishing results in significant income for the year for the family. There are several domestic animals on the island to supply milk and wool. And of course fishing is done around the island using a small boat and from land for most of the year.

Weather is the constant enemy. After a storm, repairs often are needed. If things are quiet, there are always improvements to be made on their source of water, the quality of their home to endure the winter, and collecting peat for winter heating, to name just a few. As stated, everyone has a role, including three-year-old Ingrid, who does things like repairing the fishing nets.

The family is connected to the mainland, a rowing distance of perhaps an hour or more. The mainland connection enables them to acquire goods and sell their fish and other products. Land connection also provides a path for Ingrid to attend school and be confirmed in the church when the time comes.

A number of family transitions occur during these 15 years. The grandfather dies and Barbro becomes pregnant (by a Swedish workman) and has a child, Lars. As he grows, Lars develops many skills from his uncle. To add some complexity, Ingrid brings two orphans, a boy and girl, to the homestead. Then Hans dies and his wife suffers severe depression, leaving Ingrid, Barbro, and Lars to carry the full burden. This segment of the book was very inspirational in how they all managed with hard work, wit, and tenacity to survive and thrive on the island.

The author is able to clearly describe the life and struggles on this very small island and how every family member would be totally committed to their respective tasks and growing in their capabilities. This kind of life is not for most but could seem analogous to life in other places where the family unit is very isolated yet can rise to the need for survival and growth as a unit. In The Unseen Jacobsen provides us with a very well written, imaginative story lending itself to many interpretations.

Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He’s been married to Arlene for 49 years, and they have two adult children and three grandsons.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.