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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Unseen

Roy Jacobsen

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To purchase The Unseen

Title: The Unseen
Author: Roy Jacobsen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 268 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Unseen - US
The Unseen - UK
The Unseen - Canada
Les invisibles - France
Die Unsichtbaren - Deutschland
Gli invisibili - Italia
Los invisibles - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Norwegian title: De usynlige
  • The first in The Barrøy Chronicles
  • Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

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Our Assessment:

A- : rich, lovely piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 12/5/2017 Tom Graham
The Guardian A 12/5/2017 Justine Jordan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Sparse, sublime prose distils this life along with the elements. The subtle translation, with its invented dialect, conveys a timeless, provincial voice. (...) Shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize, The Unseen is a blunt, brilliant book." - Tom Graham, Financial Times

  • "This is a profound interrogation of freedom and fate, as well as a fascinating portrait of a vanished time, written in prose as clear and washed clean as the world after a storm." - Justine Jordan, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Unseen is the first in a series of novels set around the small Norwegian island of Barrøy, inhabited only by a few members of the namesake-family. At the beginning of the novel, Hans Barrøy is now the head of the family, his widowed father Martin still active but getting old. Hans is married to Maria, but, unusually -- "children on other islands have nine or even thirteen siblings" -- they only have a single child, Ingrid. The only other person living with them on the island is Hans' sister, Babro, who, though perfectly capable of helping around the house and with the fishing and farming, has: "never grown up completely"; there's a "family defect" that crops up every couple of generations.
       The island is close enough to the mainland that there is a lot of going back and forth. Every year Hans also goes out fishing on Uncle Erling's big boat for several months, and gets a cut of the proceeds; they also fish around their own islands -- Barrøy is only one of several, though the others are uninhabited --, keep sheep, and collect and sell valuable eider down. Hans, torn between land and sea, has grand ambitions, such as building a proper quay on the island, which he eventually does, and making Barrøy a stop for the local milk-run boat, which makes for a steadier connection with the mainland.
       The Unseen covers quite a stretch of years -- no dates are given, but it's from sometime in the early or mid-1920s well into the 1930s --, with Ingrid growing from small child to young woman. The population changes too, over the years; Babro goes off on a little adventure and winds up pregnant, giving birth to son Lars -- who, unlike his mother, proves: "grown from the day he was born" -- and then-teenage Ingrid's short-lived time in service on the mainland ends with her bringing back two young children to the island, forced to assume the role of their mother in one of the larger of several leaps she takes in taking on responsibilities and taking charge of running the Barrøy holdings.
       The family struggles, including with money, with Hans always spending more than he really can afford in order to make improvements on the island, but their hardships are no worse than most during those times. The world financial crisis of those years hits hard, but the Barrøys can weather it better than many, being largely self-sufficient on their land.
       This is a novel of the hard life, contending constantly with nature, on land and sea. There's a sense of community, of helping out where needed, but each family also looks out for itself. Ingrid and then Lars go to school on the mainland, but even that is tailored to the local needs, the island-children spending two weeks at school, then two weeks back home again while the itinerant schoolmaster goes and teaches on another island.
       For all the starkness of life on the island, The Unseen is a rich narrative that beautifully evokes the conditions and life there. Despite being fairly short, and covering such a long span -- and with so many changes in the family-situation --, it is a full account that captures the sense of change -- and the continuity of family -- exceptionally well. Nature, in particular is presented well, from the peat they dig up to the storms they deal with -- and, of course, there is always the sea.
       Near the end, it dawns on a mature Ingrid that what she: "has assumed to be an immovable rock in truth has been a rotting raft, which her father only just managed to keep afloat", but it's not really as bad as that -- or rather, it's somehow manageable: everything has constantly needed to be patched and darned and mended, from the fishing nets to the boats and the house. And if Hans' expansive ambitions have led to an only ambiguous stability, he has laid the groundwork for potential.
       Jacobsen captures life on and around the island well, and his characters are all fully formed individuals, their interaction realistic and convincing, even if so much is left unsaid -- not least when:

In August, materials were delivered in the Trading Post's cargo boat and piled under an old sail away from the shore. Maria went and counted them up and worked out what they cost, but said nothing, in fact she never did say anything.
     And Hans pretended he didn't hear.
       A young Ingrid can barely imagine ever leaving their island: "once you settle on an island, you never leave, an island holds on to what it has with all its might and main"; that's certainly the feeling that Jacobsen conveys here. The Unseen is a family saga, the Barrøys long established on their island and here dealing with a variety of challenging situations. While it ends at a point that is something of a crossroads, it is also only one of the many changes they have adapted to; it's a fine end-point -- but readers will no doubt be pleased to know that the story continues, in what is (so far) a quartet of novels.
       Jacobsen tells the story in a straightforward, almost plain way, but it is artfully done. There is relatively little dialogue -- and what there is does stand out a bit awkwardly: the islanders speak dialect, and even find each other sometimes hard to understand; much of the speech is given in those dialects. Translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw gamely try to render an English approximation, to give a sense of it -- "Hvo's it f'r ?" ('Who is it for ?') and the like -- but, ooof ..... (There probably wasn't any way around this, but it does stand at odds with the otherwise so clean prose.)
       The Unseen is a lovely and impressive piece of work, certainly recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2023

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The Unseen: Reviews: Other books by Roy Jacobsen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen was born in 1954.

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© 2023 the complete review

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