Whitley Bay Book Group – September 2021

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen

This was the group’s first meeting since March 2020 and a Coronavirus-related break. It’s good to be back. Although the number of attendees this month was small (just 5), we look forward to seeing more members back in future months and welcoming new people too.

We discussed The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, who is a prize-winning and bestselling Norwegian author that some of us had not come across before. The book concerns the now vanished way of life of a family who scrape a subsistence living on a tiny island off the coast of Norway in the early 20th century.

Some of us loved the book, and some thought it was just OK. Those who were critical found the characters’ lives just too bleak and miserable, and although the descriptions were evocative, criticised the lack of plot, which meandered along without apparently getting anywhere. Those who loved it agreed that it was repetitive at times, but thought that reflected the lives the characters led. They liked the way the author conveyed the relationships among characters who rarely expressed overtly how they felt. We were amazed at the level of responsibility placed on the children in the family at a very young age, and worried about whether they would drown or freeze or come to some other harm. In the family’s relations with the wider community, there was a matter of fact acceptance of mental illness and learning disabilities – the family’s sister Barbro who has learning disabilities is accepted and protected by her family.

Novels in translation depend so much on the quality of the translators, and these were excellent, with hardly a false note. They even invented a dialect of English to represent the islanders’ Norwegian.

Fans of this book will be pleased to hear that there are two follow-up novels about Ingrid, the daughter of the family, following her story through to WW2 and after.