The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I have certain rituals that I carry out every year around this time. It’s how I survive the winter. There are certain television shows I re-watch for comfort in the cold. For instance, December doesn’t feel right unless I sit through Christmas With The Joker, my favourite episode of Batman: The Animated Series and The Tenth Planet, a Doctor Who story set in Antarctica. It’s the first appearance of The Cybermen and the last appearance of William Hartnell’s iconic Doctor. I drink hot chocolate with heaps of cream and marshmallows on top. But most important of all is the winter themed books I read in the weeks that end one year and start another. Last year, I read Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow. I’ll write about that book at some point. But right now, I want to talk about The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas. I’ve literally just finished reading it. To be succinct, it’s a beautiful book. I have the Peter Owen edition, though I noticed Penguin Classics just put it out with a new cover. Their artwork is always so lovely to look at. I can imagine people buying Penguin Classics just for the front cover. My secret fantasy is wallpaper made completely from the covers of Penguin Classics. I’d have it in my hall.

The Ice Palace 2
Penguin Classics & Peter Owen cover art

There’s something about reading a book in winter while you’re snug at home. Central heating, hot chocolate, and a good book against icicles, snow, and cold. It always makes me happy. The Ice Palace, a perfect piece of icy fiction, is set in rural Norway. Cold is everywhere in everything. 11-year-old Siss and Unn strike up an intense friendship, which is broken when Unn ventures into The Ice Palace, a glacial structure created by a frozen waterfall. No-one sees Unn again. The Ice Palace has taken her forever. Siss dedicates herself to finding her new friend, but some promises are impossible to keep…

In his native Norway, Tarjei is something of a literary icon. His fans are obsessed with his fiction, and I completely understand why. His writing style might be sparse, but it’s beautiful and evocative. That I adored this book is also a testament to its translator Elizabeth Rokkan. Translators don’t often get the credit they deserve, but their valuable work can make or break foreign fiction. This book read effortlessly, so I can only assume Elizabeth did her job well.

Ultimately, The Ice Palace is about grief and how we found our way out of our own personal palaces of ice. A short thoughtful book, I would recommend it to anyone. Get some hot chocolate and read it when the wind howls and the snow falls.

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