White Shadow follows the life of Ingrid on Barroy, an isolated, sea bound community, away from the main population centres of Norway. It is a magnificent study of how an individual sustains a community and how the community sustains an individual over several years.
Like the Irish writer John McGahern, Jacobsen builds his portrait from the fine observation of significant details of daily life. Here the domestic is entwined with the tragic. In war time the writing changes and borders on the macabre and gothic. Bodies are found and life is brought back to a survivor:
“She grasped the hand missing only fingernails sat holding it, staring into solace, when she suddenly felt an imploring tremor, as if he was preparing to die.”
The story ebbs and flows from redemption to desolation in a way that is as cyclical as the seasons when the contagion of war plunges life towards catastrophe. The novel is underpinned with biblical and mythical reference that add resonance to the particular and give the story its multiple typicality. Take the opening:
“The fish came first. Man is merely a persistent guest.” At times it feels as though we are in the land of Job, plagued by calamities. All the characters can do is endure.
Jacobsen has made these isolated worlds his own throughout his career from the first collection of short stories to his masterpiece, The Unseen. Life is always precarious and vulnerable to people and the elements. Some will perish, some will survive. Ingrid saves lives, loses lives, but still perseveres.
Any Cop?: If you like war stories that are more than plot-driven this book is an interesting, if gruelling, read – its poetry is relentless.