“Islanders are never afraid, if they were they wouldn’t be able to live here,” reflects the resourceful Ingrid, one of the only family scratching out a living on a tiny island off the coast of Norway in Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen.
The title has layers of meaning. We begin with a view from the outside; a local pastor who finally visits the island and his charges there after deferring his pastoral duty for years due to his fear of sea travel. He makes a quick assessment of their character, feeling a certain pity for the way Ingrid’s childish hands will soon be scarred by hard work, regretting the feeble-mindedness of another sister, eating his dinner and falling asleep. The islanders help him back into the boat and go about their lives. His usefulness to them is limited.
The rest of the story is told from their point of view. Those expecting romance and blissful solitude will be disappointed. This is a powerful, yet laconic account of back-breaking hard work, wild weather and a great deal left unspoken. Mysteries are mentioned but barely, if ever, explained. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which reproduced the banality as well as the beauty of everyday life in a rural community, getting under our skin until we knew the characters intimately and saw a tumultuous period of history through their eyes. There is minimal dialogue in The Unseen, and the nuts and bolts of daily life seem mundane but leave you marvelling at human resourcefulness and the constant battle for dignity and meaning.
Islands fascinate many people, myself included. The idea of being in charge of your own private kingdom, albeit a tiny one, combined with their natural beauty and air of mystery, can be intoxicating. But we romanticise them at our peril. The important qualifications for island life were until modern times, and often still are, stoicism, courage, resourcefulness and the capacity for unremitting hard work and prudent management of scarce resources.
They are not, however, without their magic. Roy Jacobsen writes lyrically of the flotsam and jetsam blown in by the tide – some useful, some faintly bizarre – an entire wheelhouse, messages in bottles that fail to reach their destination, the slimy casket of a wealthy lady’s personal effects. Sometimes the most unpromising blow-ins turn out to be the most valuable. Family is not simply defined by ties of blood, which in The Unseen can be convoluted and best left unexamined. It can include those who are washed up by circumstances, rejected by mainland society – the odd, the backward, the illegitimate and the dispossessed. Only one character in this story is unequivocally rejected by the island community; an escaped convict whose primary crime is to expect bed and board without making any contribution to the domestic economy.
Here is a book that stands squarely on its own terms and makes few concessions. It is about an elemental place that seems changeless but is in fact as vulnerable as anywhere else on earth to the vicissitudes of history. War, economics and technology all bring their own challenges and opportunities. The islanders choose their battles, battered by long experience. Some things cannot be changed, particularly the extremes of weather. Their projects are sometimes rebuilt two, three or more times because of its ravages. Jacobsen is a master of linguistic economy. Deeds tell us more than words. A major extension to the family house is changed into a water cistern because it obscures someone’s view of their childhood home on a neighbouring island. And when a telescope is found, the conclusion is drawn that perhaps humans are not designed to see beyond the all-important horizon, because such encounters awaken dreams and raise unanswerable questions.
It sounds like a grim read, this account of exposure, stoicism and mortality. In fact it is nothing of the kind. It is as invigorating as a breath of sea air filling the lungs of a city dweller. Few of us would hanker after such a life. But it has its moments of intense happiness, and they are best savoured when they come, for who knows what tomorrow may bring? And there is a refreshing egalitarianism in its knitting together of unlikely characters in a stubborn and independent domestic commonwealth.
Islands are easy to fall in love with. They are also, both physically and psychologically, very difficult to leave. Most of us only see them from the outside. We will never fully understand them, or what motivates their denizens to cling to their exposed and arduous lifestyle. It is a mystery that Jacobsen evokes perfectly, and does not fall into the trap of trying to explain. Instead he relies on the gift of any great novelist, the capacity to evoke empathy with people whose lives seen unlike our own.