The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I’ve just read two books for the Read The World challenge; one of them, Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, represents the downside of the challenge. It was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, reading it felt like doing homework. And there have been quite a few books which were either boring or just embarrassingly bad. Overall, though, those have been balanced out by all the engaging, interesting books which I never would have read without the challenge.

And, just often enough to keep me going, there are books which are genuinely brilliant; The Ice Palace is one of those. It’s a novel about an eleven-year old girl, Siss, and those weirdly intense childhood friendships, and suspense, and uncertainty, and loss. And it unfolds over the period of one Norwegian winter, so it all takes place in a setting of ice and snow, of darkness and silence.

The most important thing to say about it is that it is a beautiful piece of writing; hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, for making the English beautiful. The most obvious thing to pick out is the physical descriptions, of landscape and weather, but I also think the portrayal of Siss’s interactions with the world, and her tightly wound inner life, is nuanced and convincing.

I was saying the other day, in the context of Fernando Pessoa, that there is something of a divide among readers between those who care about prose and those who care about narrative. It’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one. I am generally reading for the prose, not the plot; but The Ice Palace strikes me as a wonderful example of the narrative working to enhance the pleasure I get from the prose.

Normally when we praise something as having a good plot, I think it suggests ingenuity and intricacy. But this has a very simple plot; by thriller-writer standards, it barely has a plot at all. But what it does have is a very effective narrative structure. The book revolves around one key event, fairly early in the story, which we know more about than the characters, and which creates a situation which needs to be resolved somehow. And that creates enough tension and uncertainty to drive the rest of the book, and means that the eventual resolution, when it comes, feels like an end-point, a closure.

» The photo, On a windy day 1, is © Randi Hausken and used under a CC by-nc licence.


The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna is my book from Finland for the Read The World challenge. It makes something of a change: it’s short (130 pages!) and rather light. Most of the books I’ve read for this exercise have been rather serious novels about post-colonialism, dictatorship, the collapse of traditional cultures, civil war, the refugee experience and so on. Mainly no doubt because that was the C20th experience for so much of the world’s population, but also perhaps because of a translation bias: it’s the Serious Books which are most likely to find their way into English editions.


So, although I have a reasonably high tolerance for that kind of thing, it’s still a nice change to read something which is, at least superficially, lighter. The Year of the Hare is the story of Vatanen, a journalist whose car hits a leveret; he finds it, splints its leg, and essentially goes walkabout with the hare for company, leaving his job and his wife to go and work in the Finnish countryside.

The book has an episodic structure as Vatanen meets eccentric characters and gets caught up in mildly farcical adventures. People often come out rather badly, their chaotic and frequently ridiculous intrusions onto Vatanen’s life in contrast to the constant, quiet presence of the hare, and the book is clearly among other things a satire and a book about solitariness and being in Nature. But I don’t want to overburden it with interpretation: I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

» The picture is of course Albrecht Dürer’s A Young Hare, taken from Wikipedia. The most obvious choice imaginable, but it’s such a nice picture.


Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translation by J. A. Thompson was written in the 40s. It’s the story of Bjartur, a stubborn, misanthropic sheep-farmer grinding out a primitive existence in hostile conditions, and obsessed with the idea of being independent.

sheep on flickr

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful novel, though it does have its share of dark satirical humour, as when the city-born lady of the manor goes around explaining to all the local peasants about the nobility and happiness of the farmer’s life. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy; both the tinge of gloom that hangs over it, and the theme of creeping modernity in an agricultural community.

The main reason I read it was to tick off Iceland for the Read The World challenge, and it has a powerful sense of place: the dark winters, with the family snowed in for weeks at a time; the redshanks, plovers and wild ducks returning to breed in spring; the folklore and poetry; the sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. And while it made me very glad not to be a peasant sheep farmer, it did quite make me want to visit Iceland, if only to see the phalaropes.

I’m glad I read it; it’s a proper, major novel, and I enjoyed it. Fair warning, though; my mother, who I borrowed it from, clearly found it a bit of a chore, and I can see why. It’s 550 pages, and even though I liked it, it felt like quite a long 550 pages.

» The photo, Sheep, is © Atli Harðarson and used under a Creative Commons by-nd licence.