cover image The Unseen

The Unseen

Roy Jacobsen, trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. Biblioasis, $16.95 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-77196-319-0

Jacobsen’s solemn, lyrical portrait of agrarian life (after Borders), the first in a trilogy, is set on the fictional remote Norwegian island of Barrøy in the early 20th century, with the Barrøy family its sole occupants. Jacobsen guides readers through the lives of Hans Barrøy; his widowed father, Martin; unmarried younger sister, Barbro; wife, Maria; and three-year-old daughter, Ingrid, detailing the everyday toil of fishing, farming, and figuring out the next move to keep themselves afloat, as they increasingly depend on the mainland’s market for their goods. Jacobsen alternates from rich descriptions of the landscape and the family’s daily tasks to passages contrasting Barrøy with the mainland, first established in a scene with a visit from Pastor Johannes Malmberget, who comes to consult with Hans Barrøy about his daughter Ingrid’s upcoming christening, and harbors bewilderment about the isolated family’s outlook and way of life (the epigraph on Hans’s mother’s headstone “seems to proclaim that life is not worth living”). After the death of Martin and then Hans, the younger generation struggles to keep up with the demands of the Barrøy way of life. Shaw and Bartlett brilliantly capture Jacobsen’s saga in precise prose that offers a window into each character’s point of view. This moving meditation on a family’s tenuous relationship with the natural world is worth a look. (Apr.)