by Roy Jacobsen, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Maclehose Press, 268 pp.
In The Unseen, Norwegian novelist Roy Jacobsen creates a family that lives an almost primordial life in a personal Eden. The Barrøy family are the island upon which they live—without the land and sea to work upon, the Barrøys would simply not be the Barrøys. The structure of the novel speaks to this connection between person and place. The opening of each chapter roots characters to the places in which they work, and in which they ultimately come to exist in the reader’s mind. It is not that they just happen to be in the kitchen, along the sound, at sea, the trading post, the barn. Jacobsen carefully consigns all action to the sites of the working day, a day devoid of leisure. Individual identities, and the collective identity of the family unit, begin to intertwine with the particular setting of the work they do.
Jacobsen hones in upon the generational cycle, the site of changes and continuities, to explore what a life rooted to land and sea means over time. Slowly opening her eyes to a life less ordinary, Ingrid, a third generation islander, begins to consider the existence of a world beyond her environment, and her own ability to experience such a world: “After confirmation classes at the rectory on the main island, Ingrid thinks Barrøy is boring… what she yearns for is a different Barrøy.”
In fact, to Ingrid, the entire Barrøy clan seem stunted. As she sees it, the family cannot move forwards into the modernity she sees around her as long as it remains dependent upon the island. This can be witnessed in her familial interactions, which are laced with barely uttered queries, tentative reaches towards a familial identity she can only imagine. Ingrid observes the family illnesses, absentee siblings and generational hierarchy that constitute the family’s self-styled narrative. But there is a difference between observation and analysis. Ingrid is never quite able to ask her elders about the island, to ask why her family lacks an identity beyond the tilling of the land. The girl-wonder’s silence is frustrating, verging on unfulfilling. The title’s claims to invisibility are affirmed when all Ingrid feels she can express is vague discomfort. Jacobsen’s novel and its starring family are set in their ways of quietude.
Jacobsen teeters on the edge of an existential crisis. He questions the meaning of family, and indeed whether it can mean anything when it roots us to the ground upon which we were born. But he is no literary Jeremy Kyle. He does not allow his characters to engage in the trivialities of a family feud.
We can’t criticise Ingrid’s silence. It is dignified and respectful. Her refusal to ask certain questions comes from a place of deep familial respect, as well as an understanding that the past should remain in the past. When the future’s encroachment demands her attention, Ingrid has no choice but to move forward with her life, move forward with her survival, as the other Barrøys do, but in her own way. Jacobsen shows that the choice between personal progression and belonging is non-negotiable for some young people. In a family whose philosophy is to survive the way they always have done, Ingrid must suppress her extraneous desire for knowledge, emotion and identity beneath the will to survive.
It is understatement that drives Jacobsen’s prose, delivering an unheroic narrative of working class life. Ingrid is not self-consciously romantic about her situation, and is instead uncertain and reserved in expressing her desire to fly the labouring nest. There is never any sense that a privileged other is writing about an experience he or she can only idealise. This resistance to resolution is validated by the novel’s nomination and shortlisting for the Man Booker International Prize this year. The nomination propels the most unfulfilling of daily interactions to public attention. Perhaps it tells of where we need to direct our literary and cultural concentration, that we should observe not only the countless literary upstarts, but the countless contexts and experiences that mould them and bound their worlds. The presence of the novel on the shortlist is emblematic of a growing concern with what, simply put, keeps people rooted to the ground, what prevents them from making a change to their lives as well as those of the people around them.
Oddly enough, the need for Jacobsen’s message is shown most prominently in reviews of the novelist’s work. Critics variously acknowledge the writer’s preoccupation with matters of survival. He is the voice, they say, for those unspoken ways in which we all attempt to exist and thrive. It is this “all” that ignores the specificities and subtleties of Jacobsen’s observations, instead universalising the peculiar people and situations he depicts into widely relatable, not to mention affirmative, reading experiences. Certainly, the desire to be somewhere else is common, but when it is expanded to include as well a churning need to break the rigid and cycle of life mandated by tradition—work, eat, sleep—then it is difficult to suggest Jacobsen is a writer who panders to the aspirations of the many. The universalising of Jacobsen’s themes may be emblematic of a limited desire among critics to engage with the working class, both in real life and with their representations in literature.
Jacobsen’s description of the hidden battles faced by young working class people has been propelled into the public domain. It is perhaps our duty to act upon the knowledge he provides, in service of those who cannot leave their islands.