THE UNSEEN - Roy Jacobsen


Book Review by Thor A. Larsen


Roy Jacobsen has written over twenty books since his first in 1982. Included are short stories including his first ‘Prison Life’ (1982) a biography on plus more than ten novels.  The subjects of the books are diverse, including two based on WWII,’ Borders’ and ‘Burnt-Out Town of Miracles’,  otherwise, the themes seem mostly to be about life away from large cities.   Mr. Jacobsen has been rewarded with many literary honors and prizes for his works.  ‘The Unseen’ is shortlisted for The Man Booker International Prize 1917. ‘The Unseen’ was first published in English by a UK company in 2016 and subsequently has received many accolades from the British and Irish press.

The story is about the challenges of a family living on their own on a small island of the Western Coast of Norway in the first half of the 20th Century. They represent other similar situations on neighboring islands.  If anyone of our readers have traveled by boat along the Norwegian coast and seen the arrays of islands and the turbulent weather of wind and rain during the summer, they can appreciate the daily challenges of these tough individuals.

Briefly, on aside, as I read this book, I am reminded of the Norwegians and Swedes who came to America in the late 1800’s and settled on homesteads in the Mid-West. These families were also on their own, self-sufficient, enduring hardships of the winter and even the hot summers.

There have been mixed reviews of this book due to its relatively slow pace in the first half.  Personally, I really liked the writing style with it descriptive language and relatively fast pace.  For one, I like short focused chapters.

The story covers about 15 years of the Barroy family which undergoes transitions, severe challenges, and, yet, demonstrate their ability to survive and grow. The story evolves from a family unit of a grandfather, Martin, his son Hans and wife Maria, their daughter Ingrid and Hans’s sister unmarried Barbro.  Ingrid is three years old in the beginning of the story and at the latter part of the story, Ingrid is about 18 years old. 

A view of the story is the evolution of Ingrid as she grows and the responsibilities she acquires as she becomes about 18.  Living alone on this island, that they own, the Barroy family have defined tasks for every family member.  Hans leaves the island for 3-4 months in the winter to fish in Lofoten with his brother.  This fishing results in significant income for the year for the family. There are several domestic animals on the island to supply milk and wool.  Of  course fishing is done around the island using a small boat and from land for most of the year.

Weather is the constant big challenge. After a storm, often repairs are needed. If things are quiet, there are always improvement to be made on their source of water, the quality of their home to endure the winter, sourcing peat for winter heating among a few. As stated, everyone has a role including 3yr old Ingrid when she was very young, like repairing the fishing nets.

The family is connected the mainland, a rowing distance of perhaps an hour or more.  The mainland connection enabled them to acquire goods, sell their fish and other products such as wool etc. Land connection also provides a path for Ingrid to attend school and be confirmed when the time came.

A number of family transitions occurred during these fifteen years.  The grandfather died, Hans sister became pregnant (a Swedish workman), and had a child, Lars.  As time went, Ingrid gains responsibility and skills. As he grew, Lars developed many skills from his uncle.  To add some complexity, Ingrid brought two orphans, a boy and girl, to the homestead. Then Hans died and his wife, Maria suffers severe depression. So, it was Ingrid, her aunt Barbro and cousin Lars to carry the full burden. This segment of the book was very inspirational how they all managed with hard work, wit and tenacity managed to survive and thrive on the island.

The author is able to clearly describe the life and struggles on this very small island and how every family member would be totally committed to their respective tasks and grow in their capabilities.  Living on such an island is not for most, but could seem analogous to life in other places where the family unit is very isolated, yet can rise to the need for survival and grow as a unit.  Inn net, Mr. Jacobsen provides us with a very well written, imaginative story which can help many interpretations.