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The Ice Palace

by Tarjei Vesaas

How appropriate to be writing this while the frost is thick on the ground and the watery winter sky promises another shower of snow.

Siss is one of the “popular” girls in class and when a new girl, Unn, arrives at their small rural Norwegian school they are immediately attracted to each other. Not that Unn is anything like Siss - in fact quite the opposite. Unn is quiet, introverted and extremely lonely since the death of her mother. But something draws Siss to this enigmatic girl and they become friends. They arrange to meet one evening at the house where Unn lives with her aunt. It’s an odd, uncomfortable meeting where the two eleven year olds share awkward moments and swap secrets. As Unn tries to tell Siss her most important secret, Siss suddenly feels uncomfortable and leaves. Unn is so devastated by this that she skips school the next day and heads for the Ice Palace, a massive formation of ice created by the spray and flow of a huge frozen waterfall:

“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 itself and deathly cold.”

Unn fails to return from her venture to the Ice Palace.

The search for Unn continues though the increasingly harsh winter. As the snow keeps falling, covering any possible tracks left by Unn, Siss becomes emotionally snowbound, locked into herself, refusing to speak about their last meeting or to accept that her friend has gone for good. As winter turns to spring and the ice palace begins to melt Siss begins to accept the inevitable as some of her pain dissolves with the last of the winter snow.

This is a book of great beauty and subtlety, testimony to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, as well as the author. I only wish that I could read it in the original Norwegian!

Tarjei Vesaas was born in 1897 in the remote rural Telemark district of Norway, where he spent most of his life. Throughout his life he published several novels, volumes of poetry and a book of short stories which was awarded an international prize at Venice in 1952. He was awarded several other prizes and was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in 1964, 1968 and again in 1969. He died in 1970.

Irene Haynes


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