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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Ice Palace

Tarjei Vesaas

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To purchase The Ice Palace

Title: The Ice Palace
Author: Tarjei Vesaas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 1966)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: The Ice Palace - US
The Ice Palace - UK
The Ice Palace - Canada
The Ice Palace - India
Palais de glace - France
Das Eis-Schloss - Deutschland
Il castello di ghiaccio - Italia
El palacio de hielo - España
  • Norwegian title: Is-slottet
  • Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan
  • Also published as Palace of Ice
  • Is-slottet was made into a film in 1987, directed by Per Blom

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Our Assessment:

A : generous and haunting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 1/1969 Phoebe Adams
The Independent A+ 17/4/1993 Doris Lessing
The New Yorker . 3/5/1969 Anthony West
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2002 Mark Axelrod
TLS A 4/1/2002 Matthew Bradley

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressive

  From the Reviews:
  • "How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary." - Doris Lessing, The Independent

  • "Though Vessasís novel The Birds is arguably his finest, The Ice Palace is arguably his most poetic. The tale of Siss and Unn, two eleven-year-old girls living in the hinterlands of Norway, is not merely a tale of childhood friendship, but is also a subtle and palpable excursion into the innocent recesses of sexual exploration." - Mark Axelrod, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "(T)he cool, lucid language of Elizabeth Rokkan's English version allows the complex edifice of Vesaas's symbolism to shine out from the prose with a clarity, even a pragmatism, that is both startling and profound. (...) The Ice Palace is an elegant poetic fable that expresses through its unique language an instinctive, rather than an intellectual, human connection with questions of isolation and schism. Its modernist preoccupations are profoundly disquieting, and yet it comforts the reader because, paradoxically, its message connects us. Our isolation is what we have in common, and the existential questions posed by Vesaas are, by definition, the province of everyone; this is a triumphant study in the reality of human anguish." - Matthew Bradley, Times Literary Supplement

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 Ice Palace is an eerily disturbing read. In simple, poetic language it tells a fairly simple if devastating tale of friendship and childhood. It's a tale of losing and lost innocence, but unlike almost any other.
       Unn is the new girl in this Norwegian town. She never knew her father and recently lost her mother, and now she has moved here to live with her Auntie. She hasn't really integrated yet, staying apart from the other children, unwilling and unable to participate in their activities.
       Like the other children Siss is curious about the new girl, and she feels a sort of connexion to her. And then the day comes when Unn lets Siss know she has to speak to her. She invites her over to her house.
       They're both eleven, both very much still children. Siss is allowed to go to Unn's by herself, despite the winter-darkness, because the way is almost like that to school. They're both excited by this get-together, but also unsure of themselves -- of what they want and can expect from each other, of what to say and how to behave. They still find it difficult to express themselves, overcome by ineffable feelings. The visit is one of awkwardness and revelation, a sort of sounding each other out and fumbling about, but both clearly see it as friendship being established here, as two soul-mates who have found each other -- even as they're still tripping over their own insecurities.
       Siss is the warier one, uncertain if she is prepared for everything Unn wants to share; she gets set to leave several times. Unn doesn't say much but some of what she does is more than Siss can handle. "I'm not sure that I'll go to heaven", Unn confides, for example. So:

     Siss was on tenterhooks now. It was unsafe here. What might not Unn say ? But to be with Unn ! For ever. She would say before they parted: You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like, another time. We couldn't have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home again as quickly as she could.
       Of course she doesn't say any of this to Unn. But they both know, they both understand each other. They've found each other, and for each it's both a terrifying discovery and a relief, even as so much has been left unsaid.
       Unn can't bring herself to go to school the next day:
     No, she only had one thought today: Siss.
     This is the way to her. This is the way to Siss.
     Can't meet her, only think about her.
     Mustn't think about the other now, only about Siss whom I have found.
       Instead of going to school Unn goes to a local natural wonder, the waterfall that slowly freezes over in the winter, creating a fabulous ice-palace:
     That was where she was going. And she would not think about the other. She would be free of it today !
       And it's a fantastic structure, overwhelming the little girl:
     It was an enchanted palace. She must try to find a way in ! It was bound to be full of curious passages and doorways -- and she must get in. It looked so extraordinary that Unn forgot everything else as she stood in front of it. She was aware of nothing else as she stood in front of it. She was aware of nothing but her desire to enter.
       Vesaas' descriptions of Unn's exploration are masterful, a sense of menace and dread -- it's clear what will happen -- hovering over a narrative that describes a voyage of discovery that is all childish innocence and slow (self-)recognition and wonder. In making it a childhood passage where purity is overlaid on violation Vesaas writes a chapter that is almost unbearable in its poignancy. Despite the artificiality of it there's not a false note to it, as Vesaas uses the natural -- the crisp, clear cold, the glassy ice, the play of light, the powerful sounds -- and never needs spell out what unnaturalness happened to Unn.
       There's a stunning erotic charge to the narrative here, too, as the small body squeezes through the wet fissures as Unn makes her way deeper and deeper into this glassy labyrinth: "now she managed it, slender and supple as she was, when she pushed hard enough", etc. Even in its conclusion there are obvious comparisons to the sexual act: when last we see her: "She wanted to sleep; she was languid and limp and ready". Innocence and violation are inextricably intertwined throughout.
       Only when school is out do they realise that Unn is missing, and the whole town begins an exhaustive search. Siss insists on being part of it -- and as someone who talked to Unn so recently they keep asking her whether or not Unn might have said something to indicate where she went, or why. "What did Unn tell you ?" they want to know, but:
     "It was only something I said !"
     "I don't think so. I can see you know something. What did Unn say ?"
     "I can't tell you."
     "Why not ?"
     "Because it wasn't like that, she didn't say it ! And she didn't say a word about hiding."
       The Ice Palace is full of what wasn't said, and especially of Siss reacting to and dealing with what remains unspoken. Nothing weighs on her like what Unn didn't say, but in descriptions of her interaction with her classmates, her parents, and the Auntie Vesaas captures the childish (and also adult) difficulty of communicating and of dealing with the unspoken very well.
       What happens to Unn changes Siss; it's a lot for her to bear. Vesaas nicely describes how the others try to be accommodating, and make it easier for her. The way the children treat each other is, in particular, well-captured, the fumbling efforts and small gestures and big meanings and sudden about-faces effortlessly woven into the story. The children are remarkably convincing as characters (and unlike most found in fiction, where the temptation to make them too precocious or cute seems almost impossible for authors to resist).
       Sex is buried deep at the bottom of this story: the girls are still innocents, only vaguely sensing that there is much that is still beyond their comprehension -- and that is still unspeakable -- and The Ice Palace is also about that attempt to preserve (in pure ice ...) childish innocence. So also the other children want things to be the same as always after Unn's disappearance, to return to that predictable childhood constancy of before; Siss finds it harder than the others, unwilling -- and scared of -- letting go of her memory of Unn, of what she shared with Unn.
     "Is anything the matter ?" she asked.
     "Yes. Things aren't the same as they used to be yet," he replied, looking her straight in the eyes.
     She felt a desire to touch him, or rather that he would do something of the sort. Neither made any move.
     "No, it's not the same as it used to be," said Siss, more unwillingly than her expression warranted. "And you surely know why."
     "It can be as it used to be," he said obstinately.
     "Are you so sure ?"
     "No, but it can be as it used to be just the same."
     She was glad he had said it, and yet ...
       Vesaas beautifully captures this so tentative pre-adolescent fumbling towards relationships, both between Unn and Siss, and then among all their classmates. The simple, repetitive language of the novel underscores this -- as it does the sense of the unsayable. But Siss and Unn's efforts to express themselves fail not only because of lack of experience (or daring): some things are simply too overwhelming to find the proper (or any) words for -- as the Auntie character also seems to suggest to Siss.
       The Ice Palace is haunting and deeply disturbing -- though in as much of a good way as 'disturbing' can be. Parts of the novel are difficult to read, as Vesaas leads his young character down a road of no return, but it is a remarkably powerful evocation of the human condition.
       A very impressive work, highly recommended.

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The Ice Palace: Reviews: Is-slottet - the film: Tarjei Vesaas: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leading Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas lived 1897 to 1970.

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© 2008-2022 the complete review

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