Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Norway, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, Setting, Tarjei Vesaas, TBR40

‘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!

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson

Echoland by Per Petterson

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2017. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

Echoland, published last year, is Per Petterson’s eighth novel to be translated into English, though it was first published in 1989. Like the bulk of Petterson’s work (you can read all my reviews here), the story is framed around a character named Arvid, who has a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, and is said to be loosely based on the author himself.

Arvid has appeared in various incarnations in previous novels — from a six-year-old boy to a 43-year-old man — but in this one he is on the cusp of becoming a teenager.

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially a series of vignettes following Arvid’s day-to-day adventures on the Danish coast, where his working class family is spending the summer with Arvid’s maternal grandparents.

Here, in the small fishing community where Arvid’s mother grew up, there is a sense of troubled family history bubbling just beneath the surface.  At times the tension between Arvid’s mother and his deeply religious grandmother boils over into protestations and tears, none of which Arvid, a quiet bookish boy, fully understands, and his confusion is mirrored by his own uneasy passage between boyhood and adolescence.

…they [Arvid and his mother] were standing by the little lighthouse now, it was the middle of the day, but so dark the light was on. A lamp turned inside sending flashes out into the stormy weather and he started to cry and the light was orange and it went round and round and he was crying and he didn’t know why. He cried and felt his chest grow big and then contract to almost nothing, he grasped for breath, clenched his fists and she held his shoulder with one hand and his chin with the other and turned his head round to look into his face. He shoved her away roughly. “Don’t you touch me! I’m twelve years old. I can take care of myself!” He turned on his heel and began to run back and she followed him at a more sedate pace.

As ever, Petterson’s delicate yet straightforward prose somehow captures the kinds of emotions that are ephemeral as mist. The story has a melancholy, aching quality to it, but it’s the anxiety that ripples across every page and sometimes erupts into full-scale anger that gives the narrative a real punch.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some funny scenes between Arvid and his new friend, the slightly older Mogens, when they go exploring beyond the fringes of the village, that helps to lighten the mood.

Echoland is a bittersweet tale of growing up and becoming aware that the world is larger — and more complicated — than yourself.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one last year in preparation for seeing the author do a reading at Festival Hall here in London. I had initially planned to take it along with me so that I could get it signed, but on the afternoon of the reading — a cold, dismal Sunday in October — I was feeling out of sorts, and while I dragged myself into town to take my seat at the event, I scampered back home as soon as it was over because I simply didn’t have the energy to queue up for the signing. Yes, I do regret it now.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson

Ashes-in-my-mouth

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my  breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start to the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Drowned Boy’ by Karin Fossum

The-drowned-boy

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Karin Fossum novel is always a wonderful, almost meditative, experience. Even though she writes about horrible crimes, her compassion and intelligence shine through, and by the time you reach the final page you’re left feeling irrevocably changed — for the better.

Her latest, The Drowned Boy, is right up there among her best. It’s a police procedural, the 11th in her Inspector Sejer series, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary to read any of the others to “get” it — indeed, it’s strong enough to simply stand on its own.

Death of a toddler

The Drowned Boy follows Inspector Sejer’s investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond at the bottom of his parent’s property.

On the face of it, Tommy’s death appears to be a tragic accident — one minute he was playing quietly inside, the next he was found floating in the water — but something doesn’t quite add up. Or at least that’s what the police feel, including Sejer’s colleague Jacob Skarre.

‘We’ve got a drowning,’ Jacob Skarre told him. ‘In Damtjern, the pond up by Granfoss, you remember? About twenty minutes from Moller Church. A little boy, sixteen months old. His mother found him by the small jetty, but it was too late. The ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for about three-quarters of an hour, to no avail. Some uncertainty as to how he ended up in the water. Also, he was naked, but we’re not quite sure what that means. […]
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way. There in half an hour.’
And then, after a short pause: ‘Is there something that doesn’t feel right? Is that why you called?’
‘Yes,’ Skarre replied, ‘it’s the mother. I can’t explain it, but I think we should look a bit closer. Let’s just leave it at that, you know what I mean.’

As the police dig into the circumstances surrounding Tommy’s death, the relationship between the young parents, Carmen and Nicolai, begins to crumble under the focus of so much attention from the authorities and the weight of their grief.

Each deals with their pain in a different way: Carmen behaves as though everything is okay and is keen to have another child almost immediately, while Nicolai clams up and becomes insolent and withdrawn. This has wider repercussions on their relationships with friends and work colleagues, but it is when Carmen’s own family begin to turn against her that the alarm bells start ringing.

Did she or didn’t she kill her own son isn’t the real question here, because it’s pretty obvious from the start that the 19-year-old mother is guilty. The intrigue — and the narrative tension — is created by trying to figure out how she did it, why she did it, and will Sejer ever figure it out?

Fossum ratchets up the tension even further by having Sejer grapple with his own mortality: he’s been experiencing spells of dizziness and is frightened he might have cancer but refuses to seek medical advice.  As his investigation into the drowning unfolds, his own health worsens — will he be able to hold out long enough to see it to its rightful conclusion?

Typical Fossum fare

The Drowned Boy is typical Fossum fare. In writing about the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing, she is always careful never to sensationalise the crimes or cast judgement on her characters. Everything is carefully, quietly held in check — the police are compassionate, kind and patient; the people under investigation are all-too human — and this new novel is no exception. And yet I read it with a creeping feeling of unease. It’s a deeply unsettling story, one that feels so true it could have been lifted direct from the pages of a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a riveting read.

The Drowned Boy will be published in the UK on 4 June.

Please note that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer’s series has been translated out of order, so I haven’t been able to follow the series chronologically. The ones reviewed here are:  In the Darkness (first published in 1995, but only translated in 2013), Don’t Look Back (1996, trans 2003), Bad Intentions (2008, trans 2011) and The Caller (2009, trans 2012). All of them are excellent.