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.

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