Winner of the 1964 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize
Translated from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan
It’s a little wintry round here, after 5 days of snow. (That hasn’t happened for years, and it’s good to have a proper winter again.) No better time for imbibing icy titles in the TBR, starting with a Norwegian classic, that will be republished by Penguin Modern Classics this coming Thursday (25.01.2018).
The ice palace is a frozen waterfall in the Norwegian fjords which creates a structure of translucent walls, sparkling towers and secret chambers. Unn, a lonely girl, decides one day to skip school and go investigate. She doesn’t intend to become so enraptured that she loses her way. Yet she does and is, thereafter, a missing person.
The chapter in which Unn becomes trapped is a set piece of exquisite psychological and natural description. I read with heart pounding, hoping against hope, that this was not going to end in the way I knew it would. That the girl’s delight and enchantment would not have the inevitable tragic outcome … yet, while I knew she was succumbing to hypothermia, she did not. Such was the author’s control over his character’s POV.
This all occurs in the 1st third of the novel. The big puzzle is what made Unn skip school in the first place, for she is a serious child, an orphan who for months, since coming to live with her aunt, has remained alone and aloof from her peers. A fledging friendship begins only the day before, when she invites Siss for an after-school play date. It is not entirely successful. The girls are, by turns, amazingly open, then utterly awkward in their rapprochement. It ends abruptly when Siss decides to leave, before Unn tells her the big secret, the other as Unn calls it.
The day after Unn is too embarassed to go to school. The rest we know. Yet some bond was formed that makes Siss promise not to forget Unn. She interprets this as a need to become Unn, transforming herself into a frozen emotional landscape, thereby mirroring, without knowing it, the physical realities, the ice palace, of Unn’s fate.
Fortunately the heart of the novel is not as frigid. This is a rural community, which does not abandon its own. Distressing as the change in Siss is, her parents, her teachers, Unn’s aunt and Siss’s peers do not lose patience. Months pass, spring heralds the thaw. The days of the ice palace are numbered and, so too, the days of Siss’s frozen heart.
It’s an ending to warm the cockles of the heart as a glass of mulled wine after a long hike on a freezing cold day. Vesaas’s descriptions of the crisp, chilling landscape will make you feel like you’ve just taken that hike. As for metaphor, I haven’t enjoyed metaphor, nor indeed allegory, in such a nuanced, not-a-word-wasted way since The Great Gatsby.