A Tale of Two Daughters

Sonja, the protagonist in Mirror. Shoulder. Signal by Dorthe Nors, struggles to find ways to communicate with a family with whom she has an ambiguous relationship. By and large, she is happiest when she remembers a nest she made for herself in the rye, her own private retreat. Her discomfort with family life overshadows her life as a single adult causing her to remain something of a child and to long always to return to that childhood escape.

Her prolonged struggle to learn to drive may be the best metaphor for her delayed maturity. It certainly speaks well for her that she would attempt that learning as an adult and suggests that she knows that trying new things is important, but the laborious and ineffectual lessons threading through the novel betray her own flexibility. There is a certain narcissistic hyperbole that surrounds the simplest social encounters for this protagonist. She fails to grow or change throughout the novel, retreating always to the symbolic rye.

The daughter Ingrid in Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen is a startling contrast to Sonja as daughters go. The reader meets Ingrid as a child and watches her as she matures. While she is one of two central intelligences that coexist for much of the novel, she is the link that holds this multi-generational novel together. It is striking to see how much responsibility she assumes for her own family and the two children left in her care. The novel is a tribute to the virtue of hard work and the indomitable spirit that is honed by spartan living. What is really striking, moreover, is the simplicity of emotion in this Norwegian novel. Ingrid is peculiarly freed to experience life on her own terms without wagging the baggage of family neuroses. The novel suggests that there is something to be said by the romance of isolated island living. This novel is a breath of fresh air in its primitive relief from the troubled psyches of the other five novels shortlisted for the international prize.

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