Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw
Let me say this in advance. Only one thing would have increased my pleasure while reading this novel of Norwegian island life – and that would have been foul weather in Scotland! I’m not complaining, but there was a real disconnect while the protagonists were battling the elements and I was sitting under glorious blue skies in Lanarkshire during late May/early June. Absolutely no reflection on the novel. I just have to mark the what was perhaps the most wonderful spell of weather since I arrived in Scotland 28 years ago.
Diversions and typically British obsessions aside, let’s get back to the novel.
The island in question is Barroy, inhabited by 3 generations of one family, scratching their living from fishing as best they can. And yet, the family head, Hans, has ambitions. He wants to build a quay to connect them to the mainland, to increase their prosperity by connecting them to the milk run.
It’s the early 20th century, and that timeframe is the key to unlock all the underlying themes: isolation, loneliness, disappointment , ambition, the price of progress, and the meaning of home and motherhood.
It’s a hard life for the Barroys (yes, the island is named after them, or is it vice versa?). A dangerous life too. The summers may be lovely (if short) but the winters are brutal. Money is short and Hans must work on the deep sea fishing boats for months at a time to bring in the cash needed to advance his plans. Life is precarious. His elderly father (Martin), his wife (Maria), his daughter (Ingrid) and his backward sister (Barbaro), never know whether Hans will return …. the sea isn’t always a friend.
Hans spends his months at home gradually improving the facilities. Building the quay takes years. There’s the question of money and the debt incurred to fund the dream; the question of the weather which continually tears down what is built; the question of the outsiders, enlisted to help the building project, and the changes that follow as a result of their presence. Also the compromises that must made for the sake of commercial gain.
Reversals of fate play their part too. Maria doesn’t have the marriage or life she wants. As for Ingrid, the child we see sent away from her family to school, sent away from her family to earn money, the child we would expect to escape the harshness and poverty of her environment (one in which having one’s own chair is the height of luxury), she returns – admittedly, in circumstances not of her own choosing – and stays to complete her father’s vision. Home is home, after all is said and done.
The matter-of-factness and stoicism of these ordinary folk – the unseen of history – is not only to be admired, it is an object lesson for the molly-coddled of the 21st century (myself included). Whatever fate threw at them, they just got on with it (with one notable exception). As characters, I came to love them and Ingrid’s final act of generosity just astounded me. I marvelled too at Jacobsen’s writing, particularly his evocation of the natural environment. Given the first paragraph of this review, I’m tempted to quote a storm, but shall settle instead for an aspect of the environment that took me by surprise.
… the warm land wind that has blown over the island for many days now, but then it suddenly drops …
There are no longer any bird screams either.There is no rustling in the grass and no insects are buzzing. The sea is smooth, the gurgling of water between the rocks on the beach has gone quiet, there isn’t a sound between all the horizons, they are indoors.
A silence like this is very rare ….
On an island there is so little silence … It is mystical, it borders on the thrilling, it is a faceless stranger in a black cloak wandering across the island with inaudible footsteps. The duration depends on the time of year, silence can last longer in the winter, with ice on the ground, while in summer there is always a slight pause between one wind and the next, between high and low tide or the miracles that takes place in humans as they change from breathing in to breathing out.
The translation of the novel is a co-operation between Don Barlett and Don Shaw. There’s no identifying who translated which sections either. It’s completely seamless. I particularly enjoyed the direct speech that has been rendered in a Yorkshiresque dialect (at least that’s how I read it) to denote the original dialect I assume is used in the original. This is not only creative, it’s effective in strengthening the sense of time and place.
And finally, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize will be announced this evening. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m willing the victory to Roy Jacobsen.