The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen review – a profound interrogation of freedom and fate

A speck of rock off Norway’s coast is the setting for this fascinating portrait of hardship and wonder at the start of the 20th century

“An island is a cosmos in a nutshell …” The setting for this Norwegian bestseller, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw and now shortlisted for the International Man Booker prize, is a speck of rock off Norway’s coast at the start of the 20th century. Barrøy is a world entire for the one family who live there: it is scoured by storms and at the mercy of the sea that both provides a living and brings so much death, but is seemingly eternal, and seemingly theirs. Stoical, intense, gruffly matter-of-fact – “islanders have a dark disposition, they are beset not with fear but solemnity” – Hans and Maria, along with daughter Ingrid, Hans’ father Martin and sister Barbro, who has learning disabilities, endure physical and existential hardship. They also revel in occasional wonders: the softness of eider down, the miracle of a sea frozen for skating, one’s own chair to sit on. Yet wider society encroaches, even as their own dreams and ambitions run up against the limits of the land and weather. This is a profound interrogation of freedom and fate, as well as a fascinating portrait of a vanished time, written in prose as clear and washed clean as the world after a storm.

Unseen is published by MacLehose. To order a copy for £7.64 (RRP £8.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Justine Jordan

The GuardianTramp

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