Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
This fine novel, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born, was the surprise winner of the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and it really is a book to cherish and remember.
Out Stealing Horses eschews the knowing realism of much contemporary fiction in favour of the episodic ebb and flow of the "unending conversation" in the mind of the narrator, as he looks back upon a series of traumatic war-time incidents in the past, and in the face of approaching old age. The narrator, Trond, has returned, following the death of his second wife, to a remote settlement in Norway where he and his family spent their childhood holidays under German occupation. Not only do old faces re-appear, but he has to try to finally understand the familial and political betrayals of that bitter period of resistance and collaboration, and the breaking of families.
The detail of the daily round of wood-chopping, shopping, cooking, dog-walking and immersion in the life of the forest of an ageing widower is beautifully achieved. There is also the occasional drink with a neighbour, and a nightly reading of Dickens, the novelist whose work shaped the imagination of the young Norwegian who, like David Copperfield, desperately hoped to become the hero of his own life. That question overshadows the whole novel: did he achieve this heroic role?
Tragedy and epiphany recur in equal parts, though the deep forest interiors seem to absorb all of human hope and suffering. In his childhood Trond remembers the milkmaids singing the cows home every evening just as vividly as the presence of the Germans and the secretive night-time manoeuvres of local partisans. However, there was one terrible incident involving the accidental shooting of a child by its twin brother, that provides the fulcrum of the novel, and seems to instigate a pattern of family ruptures that marks the lives of nearly all of the male characters we meet. The narrator, like his father before him, and his best friend, at some point in his life walks out on his family, never to return or even maintain contact. Going missing seems to be the price men under stress have to pay in these taciturn, unforgiving times and places.
There is salvation in this world through physical labour. The scenes of harvesting and tree-felling (and the subsequent rolling of the trees into the river to be manoeuvred downstream to the sawmills) are imbued with a Tolstoyan love and deep nostalgia. If these days are happily foreshortened by the blue hour of dusk "when everything draws closer", so too are the final days and months of the narrator as he slowly untangles the mysteries of childhood; the threads of fragmented family and village relationships are gathered in again, and finally understood.
Don't be put off by the title and its unfortunate echoes of Cormac McCarthy's overly poeticised All the Pretty Horses, nor the jacket photograph of the author in full horse-whispering mode. Inside is the real thing, a novel artfully conveying a profound sense of time passing, the consolations of landscape, and a prose style and folded-in geology that makes every sentence do the work of ten.