Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Comments from the judges
An island off the coast of Norway in an unspecified year off the coast of the early nineteenth-century. Three generations of the Barrøy family live a subsistence life of farming, fishing and migrant labour, in contest with dramatic weather and within the dynamic of a complex family obliged to pull together against health, well-being and outside interference in order to survive. If the themes sound at all familiar to anyone who has seen Man of Aran or read Edwin Muir, it is the telling that distinguishes this novel, a narrative style as compelling as it is beautiful; as wry and apparently light-handed as it is intimate and fresh.
The cast of characters includes a family somewhat oddly extended by pregnancy, (hoped-for and unplanned), passing strangers and happenstance. It’s a family both piercingly vulnerable and fiercely resilient, in which both man and woman are shown to be engaged, challenged, undone and rewarded by their island circumstances. In their enduring hardship, the characters cannot rely on graft alone for survival: acts of imagination or fancy sometimes yield the most propitious rewards, and it is the novel’s ability to veer between a harsh and sometimes heart-breaking realism, and a more beguiling narrative of how people rub up against each other that makes this novel such a pleasurable and rewarding read.
At the novel’s heart is Ingrid, daughter of the house: her life of exchanging island for mainland and back again, with all the consequent gains and losses of the swaps, is told in a crisp, almost pristine present tense. It’s a beautifully modulated prose style, sensitive and alert, flexible and alive to nuance and detail. Without compromising physical particularity, it also manages to accommodate a kind of psychological heft, so the whole novel seems an exploration not just of one family in one time and place, but of a way of being human involving kindness, frailty and empathy. It is a story of human capacity, of resilience and change. And it is told briskly but attentively, and it rings entirely true:
‘It is all eggs and spring farming and eider down and the peaceful summer months, when they work round the clock, and then comes autumn, when the quay becomes a reality, not a quay of tarred posts as planned but one built of rock, this is because everything is not as it should be in Ingrid’s happy childhood after all, there is unrest in the world, it is ablaze.’
About the book
Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries . . .
Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams.
Her father dreams of building a quay that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her.
Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast.
But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.
About the author
Roy Jacobsen has twice been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literary Award: for Seierherrene in 1991, and Frost in 2003, and in 2009 he was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac Award for his novel The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. The Unseen was Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017.
A reminder that it’s not that long ago our forefathers were unbearably poor and struggling to stay alive. This is a family history with gorgeous arctic nature depictions and beautiful poetic prose in every sentence.