Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

This short novel tells the story of Siss, a young Norwegian girl who finds herself strangely drawn to the new girl in her class, orphan Unn who has only recently come to live in their isolated little town.  The two girls spend an evening together that becomes freighted with meaning for both of them when Unn indicates she has a secret that cannot be spoken.  The next day, excited about her new friend, Siss rushes to school, but Unn is nowhere to be seen; as excited and moved as Unn, she has taken the day off and gone to visit the titular ice palace - a waterfall frozen into fantastic caves and shapes.  When Unn does not return, the local people searching for her put pressure on Siss to tell them everything that she knows - but what, really, does she really know about Unn?  and will Unn ever come home?

There are lots of mysteries at the heart of this book, and Vesaas's style is often oblique and self-contained, not really giving anything away, but it also ranges to the poetic (one short chapter is actually in poem form) and to expansive interior monologue.  We hear a lot of Siss's thoughts, and are invited to suffer with her as she, her parents, friends and neighbours, all try to resolve the feelings that arise from Unn's disappearance.  The descriptions of the snowy Norwegian winter and the astonishing ice palace are lyrical and evocative.  There is not much dialogue, and what there is is either direct and to the point, or deliberately vague and evasive.  Vesaas weaves together a coming-of-age narrative with stories of friendship and of loss, producing a novel which is satisfyingly interesting even while it retains its own mysterious ambiguity.

I'm slightly ashamed that I first knew this story through the 1987 film of the same name, which I saw years ago without having any idea that it was based on a novel.  Thanks to an episode of BBC Radio 4's A Good Read, however, where it was the choice of the writer Gabriel Gbadamosi, I realised that there was a novel and my kind partner bought it for me for Christmas.  It's an excellent winter read, brief but very resonant, and will repay re-reading. The film doesn't seem to be available to buy, which is a shame - I remember it as extremely beautiful.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

My 2013 reading

2013 has been a thin year for both reading and blogging.  I plan to submit my thesis in the spring, so both should pick up a bit during 2014.

How many books read in 2013?
39 books read in total; I haven’t counted books where I only read one or two chapters. 

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?
18 fiction and 21 non-fiction; leisure reading has been mostly non-fiction this year, probably because reading fiction takes me straight back to thinking about my thesis.  Where I have read fiction for pleasure it has mostly been crime fiction.

Male/Female authors?
14 books by male authors, and 25 by female authors.  Most of the non-fiction was written by men and I only read a couple of novels by male authors, notably Richard Aldington’s Women Must Work.

Favourite book read?
I can’t pick a favourite even from a paltry total of 38 books, but I very much enjoyed Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes and The Franchise Affair, Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, Nan Harvey’s The Living Mountain,  Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Are You My Mother? and Rachel Hewitt’s marvellous biography of the Ordnance Survey, Map of a Nation.

Least favourite?
I usually like P.D. James, but Death Comes to Pemberley was a rather dull disappointment, and a waste of some of the wittiest characters in English literature.  I bought it from a charity shop and it returned there, however, so there was some modest benefit to my having read it.

Oldest book read?
Grania: the Story of an Island, by Emily Lawless, which first appeared in 1892 and has recently been republished in a critical edition by Victorian Secrets (disclaimer: I'm a co-director of Victorian Secrets which is mainly run by my partner).  Grania, set on the Aran Islands, is the dramatic story of a young woman's resistance to the norms society expects of her, evoking a very powerful sense of a particular time and place.

Again, thanks to Victorian Secrets I read Carolyn Lambert’s The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction before it was published late in 2013.  I don’t know much of Gaskell’s work beyond Cranford, but this was still an absorbing and accessible critical work.

Longest book title?
This is also The Meanings of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction  which just pips Erica Brown’s Comedy and the Feminine Middlebrow Novel, another enjoyable critical work which deals with Elizabeth von Arnim and Elizabeth Taylor.

Shortest title?
Counting spaces as characters, Rose Macaulay’s Potterism was the shortest.

How many re-reads?
Five this year, three E.M. Delafield novels and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, for thesis purposes.  I read Nan Harvey’s The Living Mountain twice, a few months apart; I should really try to write a post about this book.

Most books read by one author this year?
If I don’t count the EMD re-reads, it’s P.D. James this year, with two of the Inspector Dalgliesh novels as well as her Jane Austen sequel.  

Any in translation?
Nothing this year.

And how many of this year’s books were from the library?

Four library books, one borrowed from a friend, and 5 books read on my e-reader.