Over three years and four installments, Roy Jacobsen's Barrøy Chronicles (translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) have proved, beyond being an intimate consideration of one woman's remarkable life, a masterful depiction of time's strange, unreliable, and incessant passage.
The previous installment, The Eyes of the Rigel, in which Ingrid Barrøy sets out to find the Russian father of her daughter Kaja, was particularly remarkable for its balance of lightness and weight. At the first, Ingrid travels with almost frictionless, fairy tale ease over great distances. Jacobsen's prose accomplishes the same fleetness, and likewise slows and stoops as the weight and quixotic reality of the journey sets in.
In Just a Mother, Jacobsen similarly plays with speed and slowness. This loosest and most expansive installment of the series continually reminded me of the maxim/warning I've heard incessantly since becoming a new parent: "The days are long but the years are short."
Or, as Ingrid thinks to herself, looking back on the events of the previous book, "Time was so cruel."
The series began slowly and methodically in The Unseen, chronicling the cyclical maintenance of an unchanging way of life on the small island of Barrøy. Into this rhythm came Ingrid, and as she grew, so to came the outside world as war found the isolated shores. With the German occupation of Norway time and flow was riven, tears that, personally and nationally, are slow to heal. Now, a lifetime later, time is merciless. In Just a Mother, children age three years in one section break, and then a year over a single paragraph, as happens in life.
What is so cruel about time, then? Simply that it passes at all? That it undoes all you do? The seasons revolve and what gets undone by the winter is redone in the spring. And, indeed, The Barrøy Chronicles are ultimately books about doing what must be done, about maintenance, about the performance of the tasks and duties both manual and emotional required of being alive. And how these contributions accrue, crumble sometimes, and then pile back up.
"If everyone who stumbles over a rock bends down," Ingrid thinks, walking her island, "picks it up, studies it and places it on a wall, the walls will not only be kept intact but grow twenty centimetres a century, and the meadows will remain meadows. There are eight gardens on Barrøy and five stone walls."