Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's we who are walking

The ice palace is a formation that builds up around the waterfall during the long, hard period of cold in rural Norway. It's ever changing and growing as water spurts are diverted, creating new ice forms: "alcoves and passages and alleyway, and domes of ice above them." The school children have been planning a visit.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas, is a slim novel, entirely opaque. There's so much I don't understand about this book. Everything remains unsaid.

(I was prompted to search out this book immediately after reading this review.)

Two eleven-year-old girls are about to become friends. Siss is popular. Unn is new to the school, having recently come to live with her aunt after her mother died. Unn is shy, but when she's invited to join in the group, she says she can't, and "Don't ask me about it anymore." Despite this, the girls are clearly intrigued by each other, even drawn to each other. One day, in a flurry of notes passed across the classroom, Unn invites Siss to her house after school.

They gaze into a mirror together and are lost in their reflections as they seem to become each other.
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?"

At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

In a little while one of them said: "I don't suppose it was anything."

"No, I don't suppose it was."

"But it was strange.

Of course it was something, it had not gone, they were only trying to push it away.
What did they see?

Then Unn suggests they undress, and they do, but it's cold so they dress again. Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but then can't tell her. She admits only that she's not sure she'll go to heaven.

The next day, Unn doesn't feel ready to face Siss, so instead of going to school, she sets off for the ice palace, and fails to return.

A search party mobilizes that night, and Siss is subject to questions about what Unn might've said that evening they spent together, but Siss has nothing to tell. Unn is never found. Siss is ill for a time, and then grieving. Having promised to never forget Unn, she as good as becomes Unn, taking on the role of quiet outsider at school.

Doris Lessing in her review wrote:
The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency.
But it's like there's some community code, that Unn failed to crack. And now Siss is failing to abide by it.

The thaw finally comes to wash away the ice palace and all its secrets. Siss also thaws.
Beside them glided the increasingly confused pattern of trees, houses and rock; and occasionally soot-black patches. When the latter came gliding into sight, it went straight to the heart — what's that! — in this unbearable moment; but it was imagination each time, and her heart started up again, full of the coursing blood. It's we who are walking; the pattern doesn't move.

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