Thursday, 3 March 2011

Norwegian reflections

Back in Scandinavia, but no crime in sight this time. On the contrary, Out Stealing Horses, by the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson, has won praise, and prizes, from the literary establishment. There's no hint of a Salander or a Wallander in this slender volume.

Set in contemporary Norway, the novel is narrated by Trond, a recent widower who has retired to the rural east of the country, an area familiar to him from his youth in the 1940s. While gradually slotting himself into a slower-paced life full of practical considerations, he meets Lars, a neighbour and fellow hermit, who he recognises from his distant youth. Reflecting on this time, Trond first reminisces about his friend Jon, Lars elder brother, and how an unthinking action on Jon's part resulted in tragedy and began a chain of events that led to the breakdown of both of their families. Pivotal to this unravelling is the unspoken relationship between Trond's father and Jon's mother, a bond formed by resistance activities during World War 2. Told largely through Trond's oblique reminiscences of his summers with his father, the novel meanders gently as Trond comes to a better understanding of the events of his youth. This insight also sheds light on Trond's own relationships and on the path he has taken his life.

Overall, this is a beautifully written tale of remembrance and re-evaluation, full of great little details, and entirely happy to tell them at its own pace. While the core structure of an elderly - and male - narrator looking back over his life is a fairly standard trope, the novel distinguishes itself in the quality of its writing and its supple avoidance of the usual clichés. On the former point, the translator is to be commended for the care she's taken in getting what are at times quite subtle passages into lovely English prose. On the latter, I really quite liked the way that the author surprised me throughout by gradually filling out the story and backstory without ever doing so bluntly or obviously.

That said, it's definitely one of those novels where, at the end, I'm not really sure what it's about. Sure, I get that the narrator is piecing elements of his past into a more complete whole, but I'm not sure to what end. My best guess is that there's some parallel being drawn between the narrator's father's sudden abandonment of his family and the narrator's own gradual withdrawal from his own family. But the author leaves a little bit too much only hinted at for me to be sure. While I usually like my novels a little less vague, the writing here makes up for this, and the author doesn't dissemble into unexplained occurrences, he just lets the reader to a bit more work filling the gaps. Or so it seemed to me. And, thankfully, the author doesn't pull that trick of inexplicably holding back some vital information just to give an unearned sense of closure on the final page (cf. The Sea - a novel that I really came to dislike in the end).

Anyway, even though I couldn't work out what Mr. Petterson was getting at, I really quite enjoyed this one. Buoyed up by this one, C has bought his most recent novel, so I'll doubtless get back to him again at some point.

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