THE MILL OF ETERNITY
THE DOMESTIC LIFE OF HANS BARRØY, THE NOVEL’S PROTAGONIST, AND HIS FAMILY IS ANYTHING BUT BLISSFUL
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’.