Isolation, seclusion, subjects that have always interested me in literature. The vast plains, deserts, remote farmlands, mountain sides, all wonderful settings for introspection and self-discovery and now we have Roy Jacobsen adding to the locations choosing a single island, Barrøy (named after the family that lives there), from an archipelago of ten thousand.
“The Unseen” is a simple tale, a family story set on remote islands off the coast of Norway, and with slow contemplative language the feelings of isolation, of being cut off, slowly come to the fore. Even when discussing rubbish washed up on the shore, the introspection of a single remote family is the central subject;
On rare occasions they find a message in a bottle, a mixture of longing and personal confidences intended for others than the finders, but which, if they were to have reached the intended recipient, would have caused them to weep tears of blood and move all heaven and earth. Now, in all their indifference, the islanders open the bottles, pick out the letters and read them, if they understand the language they are written in, that is, and reflect on their contents, superficial, vague reflections – messages in bottles are mythical vehicles of yearning, hope and unfulfilled lives – and then they put the letters in a chest reserved for objects which can neither be possessed nor discarded, and boil the bottles and fill them with redcurrant juice, or else simply place them on the windowsill in the barn as a kind of proof of their own emptiness, leaving the sunbeams to shine through them and turn green before refracting downwards and settling in the dry straw littering the floor. (p19)
This novel has a deep personal connection, exploring the lives of the isolated family, their plans, dreams, battles. Three generations living in a home built, and renovated to accommodate the current size, one not sitting at the dinner table simply because there are insufficient chairs, their daily lives consist of planning to improve their island living conditions, and income so they can improve the quay, therefore connecting them, in some way, to the mainland. A work that shows a deep link to the environment;
It is a little under a kilometre from north to south, and half a kilometre from east to west, it has lots of crags and small grassy hollows and dells, deep coves cut into its coast and there are long rugged headlands and three white beaches. And even though on a normal day they can stand in the yard and keep an eye on the sheep, they are not so easy to spot when they are lying down in the long grass, the same goes for people, even and island has its secrets. (p77)
Although the islanders accept visitors, the local priest, fishermen, family from other islands, into their idyllic world, a stranger arrives by row boat, invading their paradise. “Nothing has been taken from the island, nothing has been stolen or destroyed. Yet the stranger has robbed them of the most important thing they had, which they can never regain.” (p138) The pervading sense of their idyll being shattered, the children needing to head to the mainland to attend school, the family battling the economic downturn and having to seek employment are all subjects bubbling along the periphery.
A novel that is made up of fifty-three short chapters, it is meticulous in construction, we even have a chapter on ‘silence’, the rarity and meaning of silence… “But silence on an island is nothing. No-one talks about it, no-one remembers it or gives it a name, however deep an impression it makes. It is the tiny glimpse of death they have while they are still alive.” (p103)
Progress, and financial realities, come to this remote part of Norway, with the family asking if their island can be included in the “milk run” where a boat stops by to pick up milk every few days, for a family used to isolation and introspection this is a major shift in their lives, however they must attend meetings on the mainland and there they hit bureaucracy and corruption;
Maria notices that no coffee is served, and that has nothing to do with the budget, and the conversation treads water for a while until it suddenly acquires a philosophical dimension, the admin officer remembers that for years Hans Barrøy has sabotaged the civilised world’s need for a seamark, a lamp or a beacon that ships can use to navigate, on Barrøy or one of its close-lying islets or skerries, after all his property lies right in the middle of the fairway, or more precisely, on its seaward side.
Hans askes what this has to do with his case and is told that the admin officer has had an idea, perhaps they can strike an informal deal, you see, his son works for the Lighthouse Authorities, so what about three calls a week on the milk route in exchange for them being allowed to set up a beacon on, shall we say, Skarvholmen, what does Hans Barrøy say to that, to this rock being of use for once instead of just a skerry in the sea?
He doesn’t know what to think.
It ruins his sleep. (p176)
One of my preferred titles on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist with the slow contemplative language and situations presenting the isolated family in a manner that suits their situation. A work that reminds me of previous Independent Foreign Fiction Prize or Man Booker International Prize longlisted works, and divergent from a number on the 2017 list. Translated by long time Karl Ove Knausguaard collaborator Don Bartlett, along with Don Shaw, the simple poetic language is a pleasure to read.
Can it win the 2017 Man Booker International Prize? I think the simple subject matter will play against it when it comes to the main gong, but personally it should be included on the shortlist. It simply depends if the current judges still have a hint of Boyd Tonkin in their reading preferences or they are diverging radically from previous incarnations of the prize, we will know more on 20 April when the shortlist is revealed.