The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated by Elizabeth Rokkan
Literally everyone I know who has read this novella has fallen in love with it. First published in 1963, this English translation was brought to us by Peter Owen publishers in 1993, who have let Penguin add it (and another by Vesaas, The Birds, reviewed by Lizzy here) to their modern classics list with gorgeous icy blue covers. A couple more Vesaas novels are available from Peter Owen, which I will definitely be exploring in the future alongside The Birds which I couldn’t resist buying in Waterstones on a trip to Oxford yesterday!
For an author I hadn’t heard of before the Penguin edition of The Ice Palace started popping up all over the blogosphere, I found Vesaas is considered one of Norway’s greatest authors, and had been considered for the Nobel Prize several times. But I knew I was going to enjoy this book because of the author photo on its back cover – with cat! That may seem trivial, but I can’t think of an author who is a cat lover whom I haven’t enjoyed reading… (theme for a compilation post, methinks!)
When a new girl arrives at school one winter, Siss, the lively leader of the group of girls watches her for Unn stands alone in the playground. Siss can’t decide whether she is lonely or happy in her solitude. Unn is an orphan and has moved to live with her aunt. They finally arrange for Siss to go to Unn’s house, where Auntie is welcoming. The girls lock themselves in Unn’s bedroom and are getting on well, but Unn keeps saying she has a secret and this makes Siss feel awkward and she leaves before Unn can tell her. The next day Unn decides she can’t go to school and see Siss, instead she will visit the frozen waterfall known as the ice palace, where the schoolkids were planning to go themselves soon.
Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone. The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.
The above quote is on page 34, it’s not long before Unn gets lost inside the waterfall, although she didn’t intend to, and becomes missing. Siss finds it so hard to comprehend why her new friend has run away – and the community comes together to search for her. She isn’t found and Siss can’t let go of Unn’s memory, separating herself from her friends, being protective of Unn’s empty desk in class.
By the time her schoolmates get together to visit the ice palace, the spring thaw is coming near and its not safe to go inside it. For a moment Siss thinks she saw something, but it was just her imagination wasn’t it? Although there is tragedy at its heart, this elegant novella ends on a note of happiness as Siss is reconciled with her group of friends who still care for her.
Vesaas’ writing about the Norwegian winter, the ice and snow is simply beautiful, magical and magisterial even, it is so evocative, you can imagine you’re there. It is writing in which not a single word is wasted, yet conveys so much within its scant 135 or so pages. I’ve joined the long list of those who love this novel and can’t wait to read more by this Norwegian great.
Source: Own copy from the TBR. Penguin Mod Classics paperback, 138 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)