India Today - - LEISURE - —Disha Mul­lick


It isn’t the sparse­ness of Barrøy and the life that un­folds on its tiny is­land sur­face that make you feel as lonely and sad as you do through­out The Un­seen, Roy Ja­cob­sen’s mov­ing but some­times alien­at­ing Nor­we­gian novel. Rather, it is the un­ex­pect­ed­ness of the nar­ra­tive, the mus­cu­lar swells and dips, the way emo­tion vi­brates in the clear air be­tween pro­tag­o­nists. Life—still, terse and full—on the epony­mous is­land where the Barrøy fam­ily (and only the Barrøy fam­ily) lives and farms and fishes is evoca­tive of an­other coastal writer, the Cape Cod-based poet, Mary Oliver. ‘It is one of the per­ils of our so-called civ­i­lized age, that we do not ac­knowl­edge enough, or cher­ish enough, this con­nec­tion be­tween soul and land­scape…’ Oliver writes in her book of es­says and po­etry, Long Life (2004). Never has this re­viewer felt that con­nec­tion more in­tensely than while read­ing The Un­seen.

The do­mes­tic life of Hans Barrøy, the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, and his fam­ily is any­thing but bliss­ful. It is harsh and te­dious and pre­de­ter­mined, re­flected most painfully in the build­ing and re­build­ing of struc­tures on the is­land, which use ev­ery ounce of en­ergy and will, only to be flat­tened by one night of storm. This te­dium is splin­tered by pul­sat­ing life. The oc­ca­sional vis­i­tors leave the fam­ily want­ing more, yet also ful­filled. Fam­ily mem­bers leave home for school or work, and bring a widened per­spec­tive back with them. The power dy­namic shifts be­tween son and father. And then of course, there is death, which passes in the way that sea­sons do: in­evitably, but chang­ing ev­ery­thing for­ever.

In few, bare words—a mere 268 pages—Ja­cob­sen cul­ti­vates char­ac­ters, land­scape and a world view that is at once de­spair­ing and vi­tal. Life on one of the ‘ten thou­sand is­lands’ off the Nor­we­gian main­land will change over the course of the cen­tury to come, and ‘like so much else that is good, it is im­pos­si­ble to know’. The Un­seen cap­tures this change in process, in the slow and de­ter­mined ac­tions of Hans and Maria and Bar­bro and Lans and In­grid. It is a change that re­sists lin­ear­ity and no­tions of op­por­tu­nity and progress, as it is drawn to it. Like the re­peated dis­cov­ery of and fas­ci­na­tion with an in­her­ited tele­scope, and its quiet set­ting away, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion, be­cause ‘there must be a rea­son for the eye not see­ing fur­ther than it does’.

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