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The Unseen: SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE 2017 by Roy Jacobsen, Don Bartlett, and Don Shaw

As seen:

By Roy Jacobsen, Don Bartlett, and and, Don Shaw

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1 review

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

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.

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw


29 May 2017

Reading The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen was a lovely departure from the mainstream commercial novels I usually pick up for my morning commute. I was drawn in by the slow, beautiful place setting and the dramatic but completely foreign scenery. The Unseen documents the life of a small family on a remote island in an archipelago off the coast of Norway. Time is unknowable, and they rarely have contact with the outside, modern world. Each day is hard labour, few words and the astonishingly beautiful and unpredictable island.

I found I was engrossed in the atmosphere and in learning about the Barrøy family’s way of life. If this had been set in the suburban modern day, I might have found this repetitive, but the island way of survival is so incredibly different to anything that we have ever known. Each of the short chapters felt like an education and a celebration of sheer human resourcefulness and stubbornness. For me, the human characters were almost secondary to the island, as the whole world seems to revolve around it.

Jacobsen’s style is lovely and lyrical, without ever straying into flowery territory. The translators have done a fantastic job of retaining the essence Nordic culture in the language, and there are some really beautiful passages where Jacobsen emphasises the pure power of nature. Time is not stable, but pauses and then leaps forward with the situation of the island. Once desolate and remote, the modern world is slowly and inextricably drawing the island into a larger society. By building a quay, attending school and joining the milk run, the human characters are observing that the island itself is not enough anymore. Although perhaps one day they might be forced to leave it, it is hard to even entertain the thought as it has been such a constant in everything they do.

For me, although I loved the language and the characters, the book is intentionally slow and drawn out, and quite different from any other fiction book I have read. For the majority of the novel, the characters and the island merely exist. The pace of the book is reflected in this existence, and all the main plot events seem to really happen in the final third of the novel. Although I appreciate that this is the intention of the author, and he remains faithful to the style, this does mean that some portions of the book are quite repetitive as we cycle through the seasons of island life.

On the whole, I think this is a beautifully written and stylish book, which was really enjoyable to discover.

Review by Susie B, The Society of Young Publishers London Book Club

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