The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

Norway is a country of gorgeous scenery. When I visited it a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of its fjords and the charm of its small towns. It was also where I was treated to a fabulous display of the Northern Lights!

But besides nature, Norway also has a strong literary heritage as I am beginning to discover. Two months in and I have already savoured the novels of two Norwegian authors. One was the existential Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad, which I had reviewed on my blog earlier. The other is the one I will be reviewing now – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

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Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

The Ice Palace is a haunting tale of two 11-year old girls Siss and Unn. When the novel opens, it is a cold winter’s evening and Siss is one her way to Unn’s house.

Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.

Those lines are intriguing and we get a whiff of an intense friendship about to develop between them.

We then learn that Unn lost her unwed mother last spring. Having never met her father, she now comes to live in the village with her only relative – Auntie.

From the beginning it is clear that Unn is shy, likes to be alone and does not participate in the activities of the other children.

Siss, on the other hand, is a lively girl, always at the centre of her friends circle and tries her best to persuade Unn to join them.

And yet, despite their different personalities, they are drawn to each other, finally culminating in Unn asking Siss to come to her house one evening.

This is where it gets intense, sensual even and the meeting between the two girls is so electric, it crackles.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know; gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves!

These are the tentative beginnings of a deep friendship as both the girls are trying to figure each other out.

We get to a pivotal moment in their conversation, an exchange (and what it implies) that Siss will have difficulty in conveying to adults later on in the novel.

After a long silence Unn said, ‘Siss.’

The start!

‘Yes?’

‘There’s something I want – ‘ said Unn, flushing.

Siss was already embarrassed. ‘Oh?’

‘Did you see anything on me just now?’ asked Unn quickly but looking Siss straight in the eyes.

Siss became even more embarrassed. ‘No!’

‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ began Unn again, her voice unrecognizable.

Siss held her breath.

Unn did not continue. But then she said, ‘I’ve never said it to anyone.’

Siss stammered, ‘Would you have said it to your mother?’

‘No!’

Silence.

Siss saw that Unn’s eyes were full of anxiety. Was she not going to tell her? Siss asked, almost in a whisper, ‘Will you say it now?’

Unn drew herself up. ‘No.’

‘All right.’

And we also get a feeling that while Siss is the extroverted of the two, she is also warier. She wants to know more about Unn and yet she is afraid.

By this time, we are barely 30 pages into the novel, and there is still so much yet to take place. But as far as the plot line goes, I will not reveal more.

While the entire novel is from Siss’ point of view, there is one chapter in the early part of the novel – and the only one – which is told from Unn’s point of view.

But it is a chapter that I read with a growing sense of dread and foreboding – and also with a sense of wonderment, of the kind Unn felt too. It is also the chapter where we are first introduced to the Ice Palace (of the novel) in the Norwegian fjords.

Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.

A little further on…

The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle. From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky, they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

The Ice Palace then is a haunting, mesmerizing novel of friendship, of loss, of redemption and recovery, of the forces of nature, of people and their lives in a village.

Vesaas’ writing (wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) is superb. The prose is lean, spare and poetic. He is great at getting into the minds of children and conveying the world one sees through their eyes. Throughout the novel, things are implied, never explicitly stated.

He is also particularly good at expressing mood and atmosphere and describing nature.

A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.

Clearly, Vesaas writing’ was influenced by his origins. Here’s his profile from the book:

Tarjei Vesaas was born on a farm in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated mountainous district of southern Norway, in 1897 and, having little taste for travel and an abiding love of his native countryside, died there in 1970 aged seventy-two.

I simply loved The Ice Palace. It had me captivated throughout, and I will be exploring more of this author’s backlist.

The Ice Palace
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman)

Portobello Books is a publishing house to watch out for.

In 2015, it released the marvelous The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Hang which turned out to be one of my top reads that year. It’s a story about how a supposedly unremarkable woman decides one to day to become a vegetarian and shocks not only her husband but her whole family and the consequences this act has for everyone (this might not be such a big thing in our world and we are free to make that choice, but in a rigid society such as Korea, it is considered an act of rebellion).

I loved that book unreservedly and have always been keeping a close eye on Portobello’s catalogue every year.

When Portobello published Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, it caught my fancy. The premise of the novel was intriguing and the cover also had a lot to do with it. It’s quite creepy with the doll on the front.

Onto the story then…

Such Small Hands
Portobello Books Harback Edition

This is how the novel opens:

Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.

“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones that Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve; expectant, incomprehensible words.

Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, a psychologist is trying to help her cope and gives her a doll.

The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.

Marina is then told that she will be taken to an orphanage. She has no clue what an orphanage is, obviously not ever having been to one before.

It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.

It’s at the orphanage where the story shifts to a whole new level.

Up until now, the story is told from Marina’s point of view. But once the focus is on the orphanage, the author’s narration shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.

In an interview, Granta asked the author what drew him to the collective ‘we’ voice – the chorus, the voice of the other girls. This is what he said:

“I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognizing that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.”

The moment Marina makes her entry, it is evident to the girls that she is different. And they do not know how to deal with it.

Marina’s individuality poses a threat to an otherwise calm existence the girls had been leading. Prior to her arrival, they all did the same thing, followed the same routines.

But once Marina is in their midst, they become aware of themselves, of their bodies in a way they never did before.

We don’t even know if we actually saw it: Marina’s scar. We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide. Suddenly, we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.

And it all started there, like a breach, in her scar.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.

The girls are also not quite sure how to deal with Marina. They sense she is different. And that makes the girls love her and loathe her at the same time.

During the daytime, the girls are mean to Marina and treat her badly, and yet they are also fascinated by her and want her to be part of them. During the nights, Marina holds some power over them, inventing games that the girls want to eagerly play.

This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.

I didn’t quite love this novel when I was reading it. And yet I was transfixed by it. As the novel veered towards its conclusion, it got murkier, haunting and gripping. More importantly, a few weeks after having read this book, it has stayed quite fresh in my mind and I continue to think about it from time to time; all of which are hallmarks of a very good novel.

Translation credits go to Lisa Dillman.