Thursday, July 19, 2007

Crystaline, poetic, and perfectly observed (Books - The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas)

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is a crystaline gem. I've never read anything by him. He wrote in the 20th century and lived in Norway. Its taut poetic prose seems to say just as much as it should and no more:

...They did not speak to each other until the school day was over. Then they stood talking quickly and shyly. Siss asked whether Unn would come home with her all the same?

'No, why shouuld I?' asked Unn.

Siss hesitated. She knew it was because she thought she might have something that Unn's aunt did not have - and then she was used to her friends coming to her. She was ashamed and could not tell Unn this.

'No, nothing special,' she said.


This was what Siss knew about Unn - and now she was on her way to her, after going home to let them know.

The cold nibbled at her. It creaked underfoot, and the ice thundered down below. Then she caught sight of the little cottage where Unn and her aunt lived. Light shone out on to the frosted birch trees. Her heart pounded in joy and anticipation.

There is not a lot to say about this book because it is so good. I'm going to give away what little plot there is because there is no other way to talk about what the book does. I knew what happened prior to reading it and it did not ruin the book for me, on the contrary, it increased the suspense somewhat. But don't read on if you think a plot revelation will spoil it for you.

The story is set in the long winter of frozen Norway. In it, Siss is fascinated by Unn, a new girl who has come to her school, and longs to meet her. They meet just once but seem to form a quick and loving bond. The next day Unn takes a walk and gets trapped in a waterfall that freezes each winter, forming a palace of ice. The whole town searches for her but never finds her. Siss is deeply shaken by the disappearance of her new friend and makes a vow never to forget her. On the level of plot, the book evokes the grieving of an 11-year-old girl. It evokes her love, grief, guilt, and how she experiences the mystery of loss. With the Spring thaw comes the awakening of Siss's adolescence and her emergence from mourning. That's it. And yet, this book's simplicity creates incredible suspense.

There is a sequence in which Unn walks further and further into the freezing waterfall which is incredibly beautiful, its language unpredictable, it is actually like a long poem - about 14 pages long - and it is magical. If you've ever watched a scary movie where you see the hero or heroine slowly walk down the stairs after they've heard a noise and you ask yourself - What are they doing? Why don't they hide? Why don't they run? This sequence accomplishes that kind of tension - only this time you're temporarily inside the head of that person and you understand why.

The book makes many simple observations about human loneliness and pain that seem to unfold the condition of grief out clearly before you. It could make an interesting companion read to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. For example, Siss visits Unn's aunt:

An enquiring picture taken last summer. Unn, eleven years old. It was at Auntie's, standing on the table.

She was given reports by those who had taken their turn with the dragging that day...

Auntie listened to the reports from the second, larger group, the one that was trying to find out whether Unn was still alive. There was no news...

She had no information to guide them. They found an elderly, cordial woman. There must have been a great difference in age between her and Unn's mother. They looked a the picture that everyone had seen.

'It was taken last summer, wasn't it?'

Auntie nodded. She was tired of this.

The expression taken last summer had made the picture compelling from the very first. It was meaningless, but it had happened. It was impossible to guess what kind of enchantment the face was given by it, but it had gained something. Taken last summer. They looked at it and would not forget it.


'She looks so enquiring, in a way, doesn't she?'

'Yes, what of it?'

What of it? Nothing.

'She lost her mother in the spring. She was all that she had. So she had something to enquire about, don't you think?'

SPOILER ALERT - (This is about the very last sequence so you might want to skip it until after you've read the book). There is a marvelous sequence when, in the thaw, the ice palace finally melts and falls. It happens at night when everyone is in bed. It is the perfect ending to this perfect book. It is like when a child grows up or a flower opens - it is a huge change and you can see it has happened but you cannot witness the moment of its happening.


Dewey said...

Wow, this sounds SO good. I'm going to add it to my wishlist right away.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a wonderful book. I've never heard of it or the author. Thanks, it's always fun to find something new!