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Stoicism and endurance in Lofoten’s archipelago

Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, set early in the 20th century, is as bleak, spare and without frills, and as far from the shifting, rootless lives of modern cities as its chilly, austere setting suggests.

This is a book which moves slowly, inexorably, and at times cataclysmically : nothing happens except by natural, seasonal rhythms. The most expressive and dominant character is the landscape itself, particularly a tiny island homestead, Barrøy, settled and named by and for the family who fished and subsistence farmed it for a handful of generations.

Patriarch Martin Barrøy is reaching the end of his rule, lacking the physical strength to wrest fish from the icy waters, or repair a house constantly pounded by gales, torrential rain and driving ice and snow. His son Hans, married to Marie is the real head of the family Their toddler daughter Ingrid, barely 3, and Hans’ unmarried sister, Barbro are the only other residents on the island.

Covering a timespan of barely a couple of decades, the high dramas of human existence – birth and death, flowering and fading, are dealt with as they must be. These are lives of struggle, visceral and competent, intensely practical.

It took me some time to settle into fascination and absorption with the recounting of the minutiae of day to day existence – the fashioning of a jetty, for the better housing of the small fishing boats, the repeated destruction of the building by storms, the repeated rebuilding, the challenges of catching fish, drying, salting. Trading between the small islands and how the weather might make that impossible.

This is not a book which takes the reader into deeply expressive interior journeys of character. There is a taciturnity about almost all the characters, they do not discuss their feelings. They are do-ers, not describers. When they do speak, their language is archaic, a dialect, and they are given at times words to say which show some relationship to Northumbrian dialect. These are Norsemen and women, for sure:

“My word, hvur bitty it is. A can scarce see th’houses.” Hans Barrøy says:Oh, A can see ‘em aright.”
“Tha’s better eyesight than mysel’ then,” the priest says, staring over at the community her has worked in for the last thirty years, but has never seen before from such a novel vantage point.
“Well, tha’s never been hier afore.”
“It’s a good two hours rowin’.”
“Has tha no sails?” Hans Barrøy says.

So, right away, the reader begins to think about an isolation beyond isolation. The Barrøys must travel this long route to be able to trade their produce. Children need educating, and Ingrid, when she reaches school age, will need to make this journey to the larger island, and stay there, two weeks on, two weeks off, for the length of her schooldays. These are hardy people, daily battling with survival.

Winter, Lofotens, Commons, Pixabay

This is a strange book, in the end, alluring, seductive, alien. The Barrøys, all of them, have great dignity and authenticity. It’s strange, in some ways, to read a book where all the characters are in some ways so ordinary, so undysfunctional, so sturdy.

For those disinclined to read representations of dialect, the fact that these islanders are taciturn will no doubt be a relief. For me, the dialogue worked, the short, pithy rhythms of speech have a music, and I was taken by the way the characters met their real life challenges with fortitude and grit. In a strange, bleak way the book has a kind of life affirming quality – mainly because there is little sense of the kind of malevolence, deviousness and treachery in these lives, instead a community unsentimental, borne out of the necessity of struggle, daily, with environment. People must trust, and must be able to trust each other. Treachery comes from wind and water, but that too is respected, viscerally loved and sensibly feared

These Lofotens are clearly a wealth away from the tourist destinations they have become a scant 100 years later

I received this as a digital copy for review, from the publishers, via NetGalley. And I recommend it

The Unseen is one of the short-listed titles for the Man Booker International Prize

The Unseen Amazon UK
The Unseen Amazon USA