Caves of ice

This is my review of The Ice Palace (Modern Classics) by Tarjei Vesaas.

Although this novel was first published in the 1960s, I have only recently come across it and realised that Tarjei Vesaas who died in 1970, is regarded as one of Norway’s finest writers.

Vesaas gets inside the heads of the two eleven-year-old girls who are his two main characters. Sis is intrigued by the arrival of “new girl” Unn who plays the loner, perhaps because of her mother’s recent death which has brought her to live with an aunt in a remote rural community. In her excitement over the prospect of an intense pre-teen age friendship with Sis, Unn plays truant from school and sets off across a large frozen lake to investigate the “ice palace”, which has formed at a distant waterfall. In this excellent translation by Elizabeth Rokkan, her fateful journey is one of the most striking pieces of description I have ever read. “Bent bracken stood in the ice like delicate drawings”.

Ensuing events are fairly few and simple in this short novel, but it becomes a gripping page turner by reason of the sustained tension, the portrayal of nature by turns menacing and of exquisite beauty, and the subtilty of the characters’ communication. This is a very Scandinavian novel, in which we really feel the long darkness of the winter night, threatening when one is alone; the strength of the steel-ice on the lake despite its tendency to blast “long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths” with a thunderous noise like gunshot; the magical Kubla Khan-like caves of the ice palace; the sequence of seasonal change from early winter ice through all-concealing snow to the eventual thaw. There is also the mysterious appeal of Unn who implies a secret she will not reveal.

If this remarkable and memorable book has a flaw, it is the structure towards the end in which a possible dramatic climax is revealed and then followed by something of an anti-climax. You could of course argue that Vessas is not interested in creating drama, but rather in portraying the events of ordinary life, in this case the natural development of a girl on the verge of growing up, learning from her experiences, and in rendering them extraordinary by the poetic quality of his prose.

I shall make a point of looking out for other works by this author.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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