By Roy Jacobsen, Don Bartlett, and Don Shaw

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A group of children inherit an elemental paradise on earth in Roy Jacobsen’s phenomenally bestselling new novel about love, poverty and tragedy in early twentieth century Norway


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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