I'm letting Doris Lessing have the first and last word here today because I need a bit of help with this utterly remarkable book.Cue Doris,
"The superlatives are all worn out; we have used them too often
while trying to make some good book visible among others clamouring for
attention,'Unique!' 'Unforgettable!' 'Extraordinary!' But these words
are used of any old rubbish. Peter Owen says The Ice Palace (Isslottet)
by Tarjei Vesaas is the best novel he has ever published, and that is
saying a lot"
Born in 1897 in the wilds of Telemark in Norway, Tarjei Vesaas who died in 1970, is by reputation one of the leading Nordic writers. At this point I'd better clarify that I'm not an expert of Nordic literature but I do love a good atmospheric trip to the snowy wastes.
My first and only mistake was to pick The Ice Palace up and begin to read it during the evening and then to take it off to bed and carry on reading quite late into the night because I absolutely could not stop.
It was deeply compelling.
Sadly I was then awake for hours and hovering in that half-sleep twilight zone where you think you're really awake and then you alternately roast and freeze
Or does that only happen to me because my thermostat's gone haywire?
I vow this may be one of the most impressive and haunting books you are likely to read this month, this year, this whatever.
Living in rural snow-bound and ice-laden Norway, two eleven year old girls, Siss the outgoing and extrovert class leader and Unn, the shy and retiring outsider, develop a friendship of opposites.Unn goes missing having taken herself off to the nearby waterfall, now deeply frozen into its winter form and known as the ice palace.
I'm not even going to begin to tell you what happens but it all reminded me of a trip years ago and a visit to the inner depths of the glacier at Grindelwald in Switzerland.
I'm not a particularly claustrophobic or panicky person but even I had a tinge of fear deep inside those tunnels. There is something unforgiving, inanimate and very eerie about walking inside smooth, solid blue-green ice. Caves and pot-holes seem to have a quaint warmth of character and personality by comparison (not that I'd know because I wouldn't go in those either) but ice seems just plain bleak and scary.You wouldn't think you could invest it with much beyond its solidity but Tarjei Vesaas certainly knows his ice.
I'm having a bit of a hyper-ventilating moment just recalling this part of the book.
Anyway I then had the common sense to finish it in daylight hours and was indeed mesmerized by the whole thing. As the winter progresses the ice is covered with layer upon layer of heavy snow and this really serves its literary and geographical purpose to perfection.
Has someone done a thesis on this yet?
If so I'd love to read it, because snow does a great job on the emotions as they are concealed and repressed, blanketed and muffled.The community gathers and closes around Siss silently embracing and protecting her through her grief as she endures her winter of discontent, refusing to disclose anything about her friendship with Unn or the secrets shared or not.
But cometh the spring cometh the thaw and with it the winter run-off taking all that has happened in its flow and leaving in its wake new beginnings for all those involved.
I will most certainly take Peter Owen's word for it as the best book he's published.
The Ice Palace has to be up there with the greats here and gains automatic membership of the elite special books shelf and it really deserves a new audience.It's a timeless read.
I know for a fact it's a book now etched on my memory, I for one will never forget it and neither it seems will Doris Lessing who,as promised, gets the final word,
"How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong.How unlike any other. It is unique.It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary"