Alberta and Jacob

Cora Sandel

translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan
Peter Owen 2003 [1926]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Largely autobiographical, Alberta and Jacob describes one year in the life of a young woman coming of age in a small town in northern Norway — unnamed, but clearly Tromso.

Alberta's life lacks manifest excitement, with most of the drama quite local: stealing coal from the household supply to heat her room, for example, or secretly pawning an heirloom to raise money. The real tension is in her internal struggles.

Sandel's writing is tremendously atmospheric, conveying something of the cycle of the seasons, of the cold and the dark of the winter and of the long days of the summer and the visitors it brings from the south. There are also evocative descriptions of landscapes, both of the town itself and of its surrounds, which feature in Alberta's probing of the physical constraints of her situation, walking or skiing as far as she can go.

Just as limiting are the psychological and social constraints of her life. Alberta's is a respectable bourgeois family, but an old debt means they live in penury, scraping to keep up appearances and unable to heat the house properly. Her father "the Magistrate" and her mother "Mrs Selmer" are at war with one another, a conflict in which she can't avoid being caught up.

The confines of Alberta's social circle are depicted through a fine series of character sketches. The more dramatic events in Alberta and Jacob involve attempts at escape: Alberta's brother Jacob succeeds by becoming a sailor (though he hardly has enough of a role to warrant his appearance in the title), but her friend Beda, the most liberated young woman in the town, ends up being forced into conformity. Alberta herself is shy and hampered by social anxiety, but nevertheless driven by an inchoate longing for something more.

Alberta and Jacob is one of three autobiographical novels by Cora Sandel, but can stand entirely by itself. It is a superb character study, but almost as memorable for the setting; it is a novel of both place and person.

October 2012

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%T Alberta and Jacob
%A Sandel, Cora
%M Norwegian
%F Rokkan, Elizabeth
%I Peter Owen
%D 2003 [1926]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0720611849
%P 240pp