Chronicling one generation of a hardscrabble island family’s life, Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen is a pearlescent tribute to the alchemy of the sea.
Ingrid, a bright-eyed child whose laughter is her family’s solace, is born on Barrøy, one in a string of family-owned islands that rest like jewels along Norway’s coast. Her family trades in eider down and gull eggs; her father leaves each winter to work on a fishing vessel. The meager products of the family’s mile-long, less-wide farm fill in its remaining needs.
Visitors to Barrøy learn that the island is a world unto its own. The family’s dialect is trying for landlubbers, who are wont to focus on the islanders’ strangeness, rather than on considering their luck. The family’s isolation aside, Ingrid is quick to discover that there’s magic to island life, and neither deprivations nor tempests can pierce it.
Time pulls at the Barrøys, as steady as the retreating and returning tides. Ingrid’s mindsick aunt, Barbro, grows up and is rowed into town to work; homesickness overwhelms her, so she’s welcomed back into the island’s folds. Ingrid’s father, Hans, commissions a quay, builds a boathouse, and barters to contribute to the local milk route, straining the family’s budget in a gamble against time. His stalwart wife, Maria, keeps her protests close, while Martin, the family patriarch, is a repository of family myths and knowledge.
Through destructive winter gales, peat and potato harvests, deep droughts, health and birth crises, and troubling intrusions, the family grows and changes, looking toward and longing for an unknown tomorrow whose promises rest “like pearls in [the] mouth.” The Unseen works toward an end that’s as much a beginning—a tight-woven net cast into the unknown.
Michelle Anne Schingler
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