‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 144 pages; 2018. Translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan.

Oh, what a strange and mysterious and intriguing and totally atmospheric little book this is!

First published in 1963 and translated into English in 1966, The Ice Palace was written by Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970), a poet and novelist widely regarded as one of Norway’s greatest writers of the 20th century. (According to the author biography in my edition, he wrote more than 25 novels and was nominated for the Nobel Prize 30 times!)

Set in rural Norway, presumably in the late 1950s/early 1960s, it focuses on two 11-year-old schoolgirls, Siss and Unn, who strike up an intense friendship.

Siss is the more outgoing of the pair and popular at school; Unn, a relative newcomer to the area following the death of her mother, is quiet, shy, reserved, preferring to stand on the sidelines and watch the other children having fun. But there’s something intriguing about her, and when she invites Siss home with her after school one day, to see the house she lives in with her aunt, it changes the course of both their lives.

Into the looking-glass

It starts with something as ordinary as a mirror. In the intimacy of Unn’s bedroom, the girls sit beside each other on the edge of the bed, holding a mirror between them, peering into it.

What did they see?
Before they were even aware of it they were completely engrossed.
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. […]
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.
Siss asked: ‘Unn, did you know about this?’
Unn asked: ‘Did you see it too?’
At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

Unn then persuades Siss to get undressed with her, just for the fun of it. When they get cold they put their clothes back on and Unn asks an intriguing question: “did you see anything on me just now?” Siss says she did not. Unn then confesses she wants to tell Siss a secret, but changes her mind at the last moment. Siss, frightened of the awkwardness between them, runs home to her parents.

The next day, Unn is embarrassed about the evening before and decides to bunk off school so that she doesn’t have to explain herself to Siss. She heads off on a day-long excursion to explore the ice palace, a frozen waterfall, which she has heard the children at school discuss. When she finally gets there after a trek across a frozen lake, she looks into a deep ravine and sees an “enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery”.

All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.

Shouting with joy, Unn explores this magical castle, intrigued by its beauty and its strange labyrinth of rooms, but she gets lost within it and fails to return home.

Later that night a search party is organised, and Siss, distraught by the loss of her new friend, joins in. But despite the whole community looking day and night Unn is never found. There is pressure on Siss to explain what Unn might have told her the evening before she went missing, but Siss can only tell the adults around her what she knows: that Siss had a secret but did not share it.

When it becomes clear that it’s unlikely Unn will ever be found, Siss makes a promise never to forget her friend. Stricken by grief and loss she begins to take on some of Unn’s personality traits, becoming introverted and unsociable, abdicating her “most popular girl” position at school and choosing to stand on the sidelines watching her fellow students at play rather than participating herself.

The book ends with a small party of school children, including Siss, visiting the ice palace at the tail end of winter just as the ice is beginning to crack. When it collapses and falls away it takes all its secrets with it.

A simple, subtle tale

As Doris Lessing says in the review she wrote in 1993 (to mark the book’s reissue at that time), this is a simple, subtle tale, but it is unique and unforgettable.

Not much seems to happen and yet a lot *does* happen. Lots of questions are asked but very few are answered. It’s almost as if Vesaas wants the reader to do half the work, to formulate their own ideas about Unn’s secret and Siss’s strong reaction, to figure out what might have happened rather than being told.

The prose style is elegant and sparse, if slightly staid, and the descriptions — of the winter-rimed landscape, the frozen lake and the ice palace itself — are beautiful and evocative, conjuring up a magical winter wonderland.

But for all its strange beauty, the pace of the novella is slow and there is much repetition — of descriptions, feelings, thought processes — perhaps to mirror the nature of the seemingly endless search for Unn. And if you’re the type of reader who wants everything neatly tied up at the end, The Ice Palace may prove a frustrating read.

However, as a story about grief, loss and loneliness, The Ice Palace is a haunting tale about the frozen worlds of our own making.

This is my 14th book for #TBR40. I can’t quite remember how it came into my possession, but I think it was a review copy sent by Penguin. I do know I have owned it since December 2017, because I took a photo of its beautiful cover and posted it on Instagram that month!

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17 thoughts on “‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas

    • Her whole review is worth a read… it’s a bit clunky in places but she clearly loved this book. And yes, I’ll read practically anything in the Penguin Modern Classics livery. I have a nice little collection…

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  1. I have this on my own TBR and remember exactly where and when I bought it—on the only time I’ve ever been to the LRB Bookshop on brief pass through London on my way to India in February of last year. Probably ought to read it soon. 🙂

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    • The LRB is one of my favourite bookstores…. 😃

      This book won’t take you long to read, Joe, just a few hours. Be interested to see what you think of it…

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  2. Lovely review, Kim. It’s great to see your perspective on this book. I read it in an old Peter Owen edition some years ago after a wine friend had recommended it to me. (He’s a big fan of Vesaas and has now read virtually everything available in translation.) As you say, it’s a beautifully haunting book, shot through with a strong sense of ambiguity. I really must revisit it at some point.

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    • Yes, the ambiguity is an interesting aspect to this book. I chose this one for my book group and we had a really interesting discussion about it… the different and varied perceptions about what happens in that bedroom between the girls and what Unn’s secret might be really showed the story could be interpreted in many ways.

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  3. I read this one last year but didn’t post on it. I wanted to read it again before writing anything but didn’t get round to it. I still intend to read it again. Vesaas certainly expects the reader to do some of the work themselves. The prose is beautiful.

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    • I think this is one of those books that improves on second reading. To write this review I reread large chunks and I noticed things I missed first time round. I’m now wondering if Unn and Siss might have shared a father 🤔

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      • Intetesting, I didn’t think of them being related but their personalities did merge together at points – like the passage you quoted.

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