I was sorry, because I wanted to spend more time in this space--rural Norway, mostly, with ventures into Oslo and Sweden. I wanted to spend more time with the narrator, Trond, whose name rarely emerges in the text and who we follow when he is fifteen and when he is sixty-seven, with ventures elsewhere in his life.
It's the story of a man who, growing older and having suffered a terrible loss, retreats to an old cabin in the country. He tells no one where he's going, not even his daughters, who he loves, and not because he didn't want them to know, exactly, he just didn't think of it. The old cabin needs a great deal of work, especially as winter comes, and Trond welcomes it. He has a few neighbors, a dog, his Dickens novels, and it is in the middle of the night that he encounters one of those neighbors and comes to realize that this man was a child he'd known, a child from a family that figured meaningfully into his life during the summer of 1948, when he'd been a teenager. This was the summer the child had instigated a wrenching accident. This was the summer that Trond, who was staying with his father in rural Norway, first met the mysteries that would obsess him (and us readers) for his life.
This is a wonderful book, and I love it.
See for yourself:
I could have paid a carpenter, I am far from skint, but then it would have gone too fast. I want to use the time it takes. Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.
I am particularly impressed with how Petterson manages work in the novel: through physical tasks, the push-and-pull of the body as it cuts and mends and builds in the natural world, Petterson's reticent characters engage with one another and meet the sort of companionship that satisfies them best.
And time: Petterson's collage of chronology plays like a human memory, feeding on associations and surprising juxtapositions, making the familiar revelatory. It is crafted of many long lines and leaps of moodiness and knowing. There is suspense and mystery in Out Stealing Horses--but it hardly moves like a step-by-step thriller; Petterson performs the writerly miracle of making mysterious what we already know has happened. And that "what" that has happened isn't itself easily defined, even as I can feel its weight. It's rather like someone asked me "what" has happened in my life. I couldn't tell you. But I feel its weight.
In my own writing, I've felt challenged by writing a first-person narrator who is a quiet sort, inwardly-directed, hardly the sort to ramble on in any kind monologue, internal or not. Petterson shows how it can be done.
See for yourself:
I picked up the jug and poured a little milk into my cup. That made the coffee smoother and more like the light and not so strong, and I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie out there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down on your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return. Just thinking about it could make you vanish a little.
This is the first Per Petterson book I've read. Hell, it's the first Norweigan book I've read, and many thanks to Anne Born, the translator, and last year's Reading the World, which first brought it to my attention, for getting it into my hands.
I'm hardly the only one who's noticed its worth: it's string of glowing reviews and honors include being one of the ten New York Times Book Review's 'notable books' of 2007, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Norwegian Critics Prize, and so on. While I'm late to the wagon, it seems Europeans have been big fans of Petterson's writing for years.
Is it worth all that? See for yourself.