What do a French YA fantasy novel and a Norwegian literary novel have in common? A surprising amount to tell the truth!

Firstly, they are both thirds. The Memory of Babel, the third in Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitor Quartet, Reviews of A Winter’s Promise and The Missing of Clairdelune, here and here. Eyes of the Rigel the concluding part of Roy Jacobsen’s Ingrid Barrøy trilogy. reviews of The Unseen and White Shadow, here and here.

Secondly, in both the female protagonist sets off in search of her partner from whom she was separated under distressing circumstances, and is thrown back onto her own resources.

Third – and this surprised me most – both novels took until the half-way point to fully engage me. It might have been my mindset at the end of 2020. Let’s see

The Memory of Babel (translated from French by Hildegarde Searle) begins a couple of years after Thorn vanished immediately after marrying Orphelia. She has spent the time back on her home ark of Anima, waiting for him to return and pondering on the unsettling state of the ruptured universe. (Revelations about a perfidious deity are an ongoing theme.) When the opportunity arises she travels alone to Babel, where a giant archive (the Memory) will surely tell her what she needs to know. Access to the section she needs, however, proves problematic, and she finds she needs to enroll in an academy to train as an apprentice to the Lords of Lux to have a chance of success.

However, competition is fierce, instructors and other students neither welcoming, nor accommodating. Some are downright hostile, Add to this a growing sense of menace in an almost totalitarian state with mysterious deaths centering around those accessing the very books that Orphelia is researching …

My issue is that Orphelia, on her own, is boring. (Her passivity – there is some character growth in book 3, but not enough. She remains the put-upon one.) Separating her from her scarf (you’d know if you’d read books 1 and 2) removes the humour associated with her awkwardness and separating her from Thorn removes the spark, the frission between them that makes the books compelling. Kudos, however, to Dabos for when Thorn finally does makes a reappearance, (round about the half-way point of a 450 page novel), the reunion isn’t what you’d expect and the couple still have mountains to climb. Nevertheless the second half of the novel flies by …

.. even if Dabos has lost me with regard to the world view underlying the whole. I was disquieted in book two by the inference of a vengeful deity and that disquiet is growing. I really hope she’s not going where I think she is. Nevertheless I will travel with her to the end – now that Thorn and Orphelia are reunited. Together they make a formidable team.

In Eyes of the Rigel (translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw), Ingrid Barrøy sets off in search of Alexander, the Russian soldier and survivor of the sinking of the MS Rigel, who fathered her daughter with his eyes in White Shadow. Her remarkable physical stamina has been well established through the hard work of surviving on a remote Norwegian island, so the long treks, with the rucksack on her back and her 10-month old daughter, Kaja, on her front, are not daunting. Most of her life, however, has been spent on the island of Barrøy. Her wartime experience, difficult, but not as traumatic as in other parts of Norway, Travelling through the mainland, dealing with people who are rebuilding a society after years of Nazi occupation, collaboration and resistance is the bigger challenge.

While most people are kind, and help her with shelter, food and snippets of information, Ingrid senses that they are not being entirely truthful. Her mission is entirely personal. She cannot understand that she is trespassing on pasts; people do not want to reopen old war wounds.

You’re walking along a road of bad consciences, my dear.”

Hva?” Ingrid said.

Hübner answered – as far as she could make out – that the Occupation of Norway had been of a special kind, in many places it had been more like co-operation, it had tainted people, now they were washing away the stains, the country is cleaning its hands.  Yes, even many of those who did do something of value know that they could have done more, and they would prefer not to be reminded of it.

It was this second odyssey through the post-war consciousness that finally drew me in. Ingrid’s impossible quest to find Alexander is really a mechanism that enables Jacobsen to show a post-war society in early stages of recovery, and also to draw uncomfortable parallels with our present. While the Norwegians were getting on with the task in hand, Russian POWs were trying to remain inside camps, fearing that something other than a welcome would await on their return “home”.

Fortunately that’s not Ingrid’s fate. When she does return home, it is with her own story of betrayal, a realisation that her lover was not the man she thought he was. Yet she does not have the full facts. By means of a short coda, Jacobsen enlightens the reader of Alexander’s shocking fate.

Eyes of the Rigel is a fitting finale to a superlative trilogy, which begins as it ends on Barrøy, an island above the Arctic Circle. Remote and yet not unaffected by the turbulent events of the three decades of the twentieth century. The world beyond has changed irrevocably in the 30+ years spanned by the 3 books, and Ingrid has now taken a good look at it. For her and the other islanders life can never be the same.