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[140] Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson

“…and I wished I were like them, that I had a friend like Franz I could swing my axe with and make plans and use my strength with and laugh and cut logs with by a river like this one, which was always the same and yet was new, as now, but the only possible friend had disappeared and no-one talked about him anymore. Of course I had my father, but it was not the same. He was a grown man with a secret life behind the one that I knew about, and maybe even behind that, and I no longer knew if I could trust him.” (192)

Reading this novel is like looking at a piece of famous, significant art work but not making head to tail of what it means. Out Stealing Horses, with its lolling and dreamy prose, takes a little more patience in order to get into the story and appreciate the depth of its moral message. The narrative constantly shifts between 1948, when fifteen-year-old Trond Sander spent a summer in the country with his father, and 50 years later, right before the millennium, as the old Trond withdraws into hermitage.

In summer 1948, Trond and his father came to a Norwegian town near the Swedish border and settled in a cabin. Trond was to help out with felling trees and gathering lumber to be shipped away via the river. An early morning adventure out stealing horses left him confused when his friend Jon, who suffered a sudden breakdown, left his loaded gun unattended in the house with his twin brothers, Lars and Odd. Behind this scene lies a tragedy, an inevitable one that dissolved both families. Jon fled and led a life on the sea before he came home and took the farm from his brother Lars under primogeniture. Lars had not seen his parents for 20 years.

In the course of one month three years ago, both Trond’s wife and sister died, and the 67-year-old man lost interest in talking to people. While living in an isolated part of Norway, where the dirt path leading to his house became a vast expanse of snow in winter, he chances to meet a character from the fateful summer that ties him to a past he thinks was well behind him and pulled aside the fifty years with a lightness. As this encounter stirs up painful memories and forces him to look back at his past, Trond recalls his final farewell to his father and uncovers a secret life behind one that he knew about his father.

In a stream of consciousness that sops the hints and little detail scattered in early chapters, Trond tells a story so candid and concretely that reader has to live it out. His hope to cure his loneliness by a plunge into solitude is no more than an inner longing to be alone, to be like his father. There’s a kind of secular jauntiness to his inquiring into his present state of affairs. But most of all he would like to know why his father, whom he adored and who seemed to have adored him, disappeared from his life. The disruption of war, which almost made him an orphan, certainly had to do with the secret life for which he had to break the tie with his family. Even in the deep woods of Norway, decades after that memorable summer, Trond finds he can never shake his past completely away. The betrayal he faces at the hands of his father casts a quiet but looming presence over Trond’s life.

9 Responses

  1. This actually sounds like something I’d enjoy on a rainy summer afternoon. It reminds me of the film Sweet Land, which wouldn’t be everyone’s pleasure but was mine. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful review. This is the kind of novel that I would like to read over a long block of time. I’ll check it out, I suppose the US edition has been out?

  3. Great review. I think this is one of those books you have to be in the mood for to really appreciate. I keep hearing such good things about it and will have to check it out one of these days.

  4. I loved this when I read it last year. He writes so powerfully yet with such simplicity. I wonder if his other books are as good? I think at least one other has been published here in the US, but I never see it in bookstores.

  5. Andi:
    You’re absolutely right. You almost have to flow with his memories and dreams. Perfect on the couch or on the deck if it’s warm where you are. 🙂

  6. John:
    Yes the cover is different like many US editions of an European title. You’ll enjoy his writing. 😉

  7. iliana:
    His writing is so mesmerizing and touching that at time I’m lost between reality, dream, and nostalgia. It takes a bit of an effort to set things straight but that’s just the beauty of (good) fiction. 😉

  8. Danielle:
    The other one that I found is “In the Wake”, a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990. I heard good things about it and will get to it later.

  9. This will be the next one city one book selection. 🙂

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