“The Ice Palace”
Tarjei Vesaas’s classic novel is a haunting tale of friendship and secrecy that lasts beyond death
Christine Foster Meloni
Tarjei Vesaas is widely acknowledged as the greatest Norwegian writer of the 20th century. He was born in Telemark in 1897 and spent most of his life there. He preferred to live close to nature, and his writings reflect his deep attachment to and understanding of the natural world. He was a novelist, a short story writer, and a poet. He was married to the poet Halldis Moran Vesaas from 1934 until his death in 1970. She died in 1995.
His novel The Ice Palace is considered his masterpiece. It is an extraordinary book that often reads more like poetry than prose. The protagonists are two 11-year-old girls, Siss and Unn, and the setting is a small rural community in Norway.
Outgoing Siss is well-liked by her classmates and is their undisputed leader. However, when a new girl appears in their midst, the harmony is disturbed. Although Unn stands apart, unwilling or unable to interact with the others, Siss is strongly attracted to her. It becomes clear that the feeling is mutual and Unn soon invites Siss to come to her house, because she wants to tell her a secret. Siss goes to Unn’s house, tingling with excitement. Unn, however, is unable to tell Siss the secret. The atmosphere soon becomes strained and Siss, beginning to feel uneasy, leaves in haste.
Siss, however, cannot wait until the next morning to see Unn at school. But Unn feels embarrassed about the night before and decides to skip school so that she will not have to face Siss. To avoid any prying questions at home, she pretends to leave for school and instead sets out for the Ice Palace that everyone has been talking about.
Although Unn at first feels guilty about not going to school, she soon convinces herself that it is the right thing to do. She becomes very excited when she hears the roar of the river. She rushes forward and, all of a sudden, she finds herself at the top of the waterfall. She is immediately struck by the majesty and grandeur of the large frozen waterfall and is drawn into the magical structure. Slipping and sliding, she penetrates deeper and deeper into the Ice Palace.
In the meantime, Siss wonders why her friend is not in class. As soon as school is dismissed, she hurries to Unn’s house to inquire. When it becomes known that Unn had left her house at the usual time but never arrived at school, an alarm is raised and a search party is immediately formed to look for the missing girl. After a thorough but fruitless search of the nearby area, the consensus is that she may have gone by herself to the Ice Palace. This site becomes the focus of the frantic search.
Many questions arise in the reader’s mind. What is Unn’s secret? Why does she say that she may not go to heaven? Who is the other she mentions several times to Siss? What does Unn actually experience in the Ice Palace?
Vesaas has written a brilliant novel in a prose that is both lyrical and sparse. The delicately rendered young protagonists and the natural setting will haunt the reader long after the novel is put down.
The book is The Ice Palace (originally Is-slottet, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan) by Vesaas, Tarjei. The new translation of the 1963 original was published by Peter Owen Publishers in 2009.
For my review of The Birds, another outstanding novel by Tarjei Vesaas, visit www.norwegianamerican.com/arts/book-review-vesaass-the-birds.
This article originally appeared in the June 29, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.