Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book: "Out Stealing Horses" by Per Petterson

Lest people accuse me of being insufficiently highbrown -- and, let's face it, I consume a lot of crap -- let's return to a recent novel by Norgewian author Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses received considerable praise upon its appearance last year, winning, among other prizes, a spot as one of the New York Times' Best Books of the Year. That's a lot of hype to live up to.

Out Stealing Horses is, above all, a novel of place. The narrator, Trond, an old man living by himself in the woods of Norway, recounts a memorable summer near the Swedish border with his father. Petterson's descriptions of the landscape are lush, vivid, and nearly overwhelming: from the sensation of the fields to the smell of the pine forest to the mist rising off the nearby river, Petterson creates a definite sense of place -- seemingly idyllic, full of adventure and mischief for a fifteen year-old Trond.

The first part of the novel moves slowly -- be forewarned. Petterson's pacing is languorous, his sentences long and rhapsodical. He evokes not only a landscape, but an unhurried way of life, wherein the narrator's thoughts are allowed to double back on themselves, to question assertions as quickly as they are uttered. For readers reared on a steady diet of modern fiction (myself included), the apparant lack of action may become grating. Well, until you get to the accidental shooting of a pre-pubescent young man.

Out Stealing Horses is a cumulative novel, where event and language slowly accrue. It doesn't climax, necessarily -- the central tension of the novel (the disappearance of Trond's father, his involvement in the World War II Norwegian [!] Resistance) grows in the second half of the novel, as present-day Trond and fifteen year-old Trond share the stage -- but it slowly enraptures the reader. The rhythms and cadences of daily rural Norwegian life slowly reveal class and sexual tensions, as well as a sunny bonhomie. Seemingly superfluous details in the early sections of the novel take on greater meaning in the second half. The title itself lends itself early to the visceral thrill and pain of two young boys actually stealing horses but also later takes on greater metaphorical meaning.

The narrator's voice is so distinctive that it feels awkward when another character -- namely Trond's grown daughter (introduced near the end) -- uses that voice for her own. Instead, it works as contrast better with Trond's father, who is masculine and stoic in the way we all expect our fathers to be. Indeed, it's this stoicism that gives the final line of the book its peculiar gut-punch. Even as the book ends with Trond and his mother -- our first, good look at her -- the father still lingers heavily on with Trond. And the painful consequences of that relationship? Well, that, the reader gets to decide.

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