Book Review - The Unseen

The UnseenThe Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, I'm really glad I finished it, because at one point I thought it wasn't worth the effort. I received this copy from NetGalley, which was great, because it is usually difficult for me to get my hands on the books shortlisted for the international Man Booker prize.

The story centres around a family living on an island off the coast of Norway. They're self-sufficient and a tight unit, but island life has its hardships. The patriarch, Hans, leaves every winter with his brother for additional income, while the rest of his family, wife Maria, sister Barbro, daughter Ingrid and father Martin, handle the daily needs of their land. The entire story is about isolation, and the struggles the family goes through to get to neighboring islands or to other people.

The book is translated from the original Norwegian, but is surprisingly easy to read, with words painting a haunting and vivid picture of the island and its main inhabitants. Most translations are verbose and dense, but this one wasn't. I did find a fair few words and turns of phrases that didn't quite belong, but it added to the alien nature of the book's world and characters. What didn't work at all was the dialogue; I'm guessing the translator wanted to imbue the verbal interactions with an authentic Norwegian feel, but it was a failed experiment. For the most part, I couldn't understand what they were saying. By the end, I found myself skipping over the dialogue as it was a waste of time trying to interpret it.

While I read this book, I felt like I was missing something - like I didn't 'get it'. It's beautifully written, no doubt, but I fail to see the point of it. There's no real plot - which is fine, real life has no plot - but there isn't much drama either. The episodes/chapters that deal with weighty issues such as the potential ill treatment of Barbro by her prospective employer because she suffers from an unnamed mental disability, or the one where Barbro runs away; Ingrid learning to deal with people other than her family at school, etc, made sense. But others just meandered along, not adding much to the journey of the characters or the reader.

There was one episode - the break in - which is sparse and terrifying, and the only time the book really lit up. It astounds me that there was no follow through with that - even if the burglar had not returned, I assumed the author would have investigated the psychological impact of the occurrence.

Instead of telling us about these day to day incidents, I wish the author had explained why the state of the characters was such. Why was the only prospect available to Barbro and Ingrid that of being a maidservant? Why did they open their arms to the Swedes and how come they weren't as scary as the burglar? How did this family get on this island?

There's very little resentment on hand, which surprises me, because close proximity to anyone for prolonged periods of time makes people irritable and difficult. Not with these characters though. I'm not saying these characters didn't have personalities, but with the exception of Ingrid, most didn't exhibit emotions quite like the rest of us.

I feel like I should really like this book, but can't because it's reason for being escapes me. I can see why people do love it, but an international Man Booker shortlist - overhyped I would say.

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