BOOK REVIEW / Frozen secrets stranded in a waterfall: 'The Ice Palace' - Tarjei Vesaas Tr. Elizabeth Rokkan: Peter Owen, 10.95 pounds: Doris Lessing applaud the reissue of a classic novel about rural intensity by the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE SUPERLATIVES are all worn out; we have used them too often while trying to make some good book visible among others clamouring for attention. 'Unique]' 'Unforgettable]' 'Extraordinary]' But these words are used of any old rubbish. Peter Owen says Palace of Ice is the best novel he has ever published, and that is saying a lot.

Although the author was born in 1897, his books are far from old-fashioned and traditional: he experimented with new forms, was described as a modernist.

This novel won the prestigious Nordic Council Award in 1963. Tarjei Vesaas has become a classic. Coachloads of people go on pilgrimages to his old home.

It is the atmosphere, the style, that make this novel. It begins, 'A young white forehead boring into the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss. It was really only afternoon, but already dark. A hard frost in late autumn. Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light . . .' But we are behind that young forehead, inside a child's world of events and encounters, ordinary enough to adults, but full of mysterious and half-understood intimations.

One little girl, the orphan Unn, has a secret, something terrible - we never know what it is - which she promises to tell her new friend Siss; but instead, the very day after the promise, she is impelled to explore the caves of a frozen waterfall, further and deeper into the shining heart of the ice.

'The new room was a miracle, it seemed to her. The light shone strong and green through the walls and the ceiling, raising her spirits after their drenching in tears.

'Of course] Suddenly she understood, now she could see it clearly: it had been herself crying so hard in there. She did not know why, but it had been herself, plunged in her own tears.' There she dies. The whole community searches for her, and some even clamber over the surface of the frozen fall, but it is only her friend Siss who catches a glimpse of her, like an apparition inside the ice palace, looking out through the ice wall.

In the spring the frozen river melts, and all is swept away in the floods, the secret too. Meanwhile, Siss is trying to make sense of what happened. We see with her, feel with her, understand why she may not tell what she knows. The irony is that she has nothing to tell, only that there is a secret. If she did break what she saw as an implicit promise to the dead girl, the adults would only say, But is that all? Yet the 'all' is terrible, it must have been, and the little girl knew it was.

This tale is like a legend. Easy to hear, as you read voices singing the lines of the ballad it could so easily be. Part of the reason for this the author did not intend, for time has taken a hand, adding a dimension of far away and long ago. Tarjei Vesaas spent his whole life in the country, and the tale is set in a community of a kind that could not exist in our brutal and ugly time. Sometimes when you read or hear about a community in the past, before it was cracked apart by aeroplanes and trains and cars and tourists and radios and television, it seems like an organism, each person with a function, a role, each playing a part. These people in their rural district are a whole, everyone knowing at all times about the others and what they are doing and feeling.

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. There are few things in literature more touching, more admirable, than the way this community of adults and children care for Siss, a little girl frozen with shock and with grief. They understand that she needs to identify with Unn, to stand on the edge of the school playground, just as Unn did - that child who came from far away in Norway, because her mother died, to live with an aunt she hardly knows. But Unn had stood there because she was strong, to show everyone that she was, while Siss is like a pillar of ice. Slowly the child thaws, and because of the delicate, perfectly timed kindness of teachers and friends, she returns to life.

'Up on land there are slashes and scars in the river banks, upturned stones, uprooted trees and supple twigs that have been stripped of their bark. The blocks of ice tumble away pell-mell towards the lower lake and are spread out across it before anyone has woken up or seen anything. There the shattered ice will float, its edges sticking up on the surface of the water, float and melt and cease to be.'

How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.

'She neither saw nor heard the waterfall, it was lower down. Here there was merely a whisper of water as it travlled downwards, and up at the outlet it was quite still and noiseless.

This was the outlet of the great lake: a placid sliding of water from under the edge of the ice, so smooth that it was scarcely possible to see it. But a veil of vapour rose up from it in the cold. She was not conscious that she was standing looking at it; it was like being in a good dream. A good dream could be made out of so simple a thing. She felt no pangs of conscience because she was out on a walk without permission, and it would perhaps be difficult to find excuses for it. The placid water flowing away from the ice filled her with quiet joy.

She would probably lose her hold and fall down into a hollow where the shadows were, this time too, but it was a good moment and the other was chased away again by the sight that streamed towards her: the great river coming noiseless and clear from under the ice, flowing through her and lifting her up and saying something to her which was just what she needed.

They were so still, she and the water. . .'