Towards the close of White Shadow, Roy Jacobsen observes, with his distinctive blend of irony and imaginative sympathy for how individuals, groups and even whole communities feel and think:
God’s love for those on the coast is not as great as for those on the mainland and in the towns; for protracted periods He forgets them completely, and they forget Him; they might recite a short prayer before eating and heave a sigh over coffee, but when for once He is in a generous mood, they are in no doubt as to where they should direct their thanks. Not that Ingrid folds her hands and raises her eyes to heaven, but now at last she knows, like a cascade of light in total darkness, that if there has been no meaning to anything in the terrible year she has been through, some meaning has now emerged, a flash of hope from a crystalline sky.
On one level this passage reverses the cliché that humans turn to religion only – or principally – in times of trouble. For the Barrøy family, with whom White Shadow and its predecessor The Unseen are concerned, existence cannot be envisaged without hardship, suffering and continual struggle for survival. The family shares its name with the island on which it has lived for many generations, one of almost ten thousand islands off the coast of northern Norway. Small, remote, mostly infertile, the island has a stubborn identity all of its own that consumes the family’s thoughts and actions. But every so often something arises – a particularly beautiful interplay of sky and water, the affirmative behaviour of an animal or child, or, supremely, the arrival of another being into their world – to elevate the spirits of these tough, phlegmatic folk, endowing life itself with numinous significance. This is especially true in the case of Ingrid, the commanding centre of White Shadow and the most remarkable character in The Unseen. At the very opening of the latter novel, the visiting pastor notes her ‘bright eyes’; Ingrid is only three years old yet has an expression completely ‘devoid of that lethargic stupidity engendered by poverty’.