No 341 The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan for #NordicFINDS23

I had originally planned to read and review The Ice Palace for last year’s Novellas in November before Covid got the better of me. However, it was the perfect choice to allow me to join in with Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge during January.

First published in 1963, The Ice Palace is considered a classic of Norwegian literature and it is easy to see why. It is a deceptively simple book about the friendship between two eleven-year-old girls, sometime in the mid-twentieth century, which explores themes of love, guilt, sexual awakening and our relationship with nature.

Siss and Unn are in the same class in a small Norwegian town. Siss is outgoing and a natural leader, a friend to all. Unn has recently moved to the town, to live with her aunt following the death of her mother and she is reticent, prone to keeping herself to herself, despite the other children’s attempts to get to know her. However, Siss and Unn are powerfully and mysteriously drawn to one another and one evening, Unn invites Siss to her home. Their meeting is potent and confusing. They look at themselves in a mirror, they undress and Unn tries to tell Siss something important, something she has never told anyone, but pulls back. An unnerved Siss leaves early and runs home.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking-glass.  Questions shooting out and then hiding again…gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never and explanation…

They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.
Siss asked, ‘Unn, did you know about this?’
Unn asked, ‘Did you see it too?’

The next day, feeling embarrassed by what has occurred between them, Unn decides to skip school and instead goes to visit the frozen waterfall – the ice palace – and never returns. The adults in the town turn to Siss, as the last person to see Unn, for answers, but she can only tell them the truth. Unn was going to tell her a secret, but did not. Over the following months, Siss becomes obsessed with the missing Unn and retreats from her family and her school friends as slowly but inevitably, the ice palace melts.

To say that this is all The Ice Palace is about would be to do it a disservice and yet, this is all that happens in the book. It is a subtle, opaque coming-of-age tale about the consuming nature of childhood friendship and our inability to understand complex thoughts and feelings as we move from childhood into adulthood. Vesaas’s real skill is to make wholly convincing a connection between these two girls, which is never explained. The oblique nature of the one evening they spend together raises more questions than answers. What is it that the pair recognise in each other? Is their connection sexual? What is Unn’s secret? None of these questions are answered, yet somehow this doesn’t matter. The strength of their connection carries the narrative to its devastating conclusion.

Event when Vesaas strays into magic realism, as when a group of woodwind players emerge from the sides of lanes, which were once dark and frightening, he maintains a compelling grip on the reader. The Ice Palace is a strikingly atmospheric read, which relishes ambiguity and openness, subverting narrative expectations at every turn, a facet that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it haunting and mesmerising. Like the ice of the frozen waterfall, it is solid, yet transparent, resisting straightforward categorisation and gaining something irrefutable in the process.  

The prose is clear and shimmering, not unlike the ice of the waterfall and Elizabeth Rokkan’s assured translation captures the poetic musicality of the original. The theme of mirroring runs throughout and the descriptions of nature and of the ice in particular, are stunning.

The late, cold sun retained a surprising amount of strength. Its rays penetrated thick ice walls and corners and fissures and broke the light into wonderful patterns and colours, making the sad room dance. The icicles hanging from the ceiling and the ones growing up from the floor, and the water drops themselves all danced together in the flood of light that broke in.

The ever-entertaining Backlisted podcast have a wonderful episode on The Ice Palace featuring Max Porter and Karl Ove Knausgård, which is really enlightening.

READ ON: Kindle
Number Read: 405
Number Remaining: 341

novels in translation Reading Challenge The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Great review! I read this one a few years back. I actually chose it for my book group and we had a wonderful discussion about it! The imagery is what sticks in my mind; the title so perfectly encapsulates it!


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