Volatile Rune

For Life and Literature in a Volatile World

Review: The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen 

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Set on a tiny island called Barrøy off the coast of Norway at the turn of the century, the Unseen charts the lives of a small working class family that survive there.

Writes the Guardian reviewer:

“Barrøy is a world entire for the one family who live there: it is scoured by storms and at the mercy of the sea that both provides a living and brings so much death, but is seemingly eternal, and seemingly theirs. Stoical, intense, gruffly matter-of-fact … .”

Scoured is just about the best word.  Everything in this story feels a bit scoured out – it is an easy book to read but personally I found it a hard book to love.  To me it came across largely as a list of tasks that needed to be carried out under difficult conditions.  I understand  life would have been exactly like that, but as a reader perhaps I needed a bit more emotional input to engage my interest.

In 2016, the year before Jacobsen’s book was published, there was a book called Ice written  by Ulla-Lena Lundberg a Finnish Swedish author which also charted the survival of a family in a frozen and isolated archipelago where understanding the properties of ice meant the difference between life and death.

Lundberg’s book was partly autobiographical, she having been brought up in the environment she wrote about.   Hers was in my opinion a far better book although it could be said that, as in Jacobsen’s book, not a lot happens.  In that story we see children growing up; a new pastor arrives; people hand out hymn books,  go about their business as well as they can. But in my opinion Lundberg dealt with the not much happening better, building up towards a gripping denouement.

Jacobsen is obviously familiar with his subject matter or he has minutely researched it – and battling such an inhospitable landscape brings its own drama.   But even so it is hard to build a plot out of the workaday fixing of a hook to a wall to hold a fishing net, the making of a wooden chair, the arrival of a milk boat.  The stoic nature of island folk is not necessarily of itself a story.

Not many people agree with me though, because Jacobsen’s book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2017.

This is book #5 of my 10 Books of Summer.

5 responses to “Review: The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen ”

  1. Hi – I take your point and appreciate your different way of looking at the book. Norway is on my list to visit.


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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