Saturday, July 21, 2012

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I really liked this book! It has kind of a dreamy feel, and very little dialouge. The narration is told in present tense, "all of my life I have longed to be alone in a place like be in a place where there was only silence." Trond is 67 and has just moved to a remote cottage in the woods in Norway. He has been successful in life, but is grieving the loss of his wife and sister. The story switches back and forth between present day, and the summer of 1948 when he lived with his dad in another remote cottage. It is kind of like a conversation with your grandpa where he tells you what he's doing now, but then shares poigniant moments from his childhood. "The feeling of pleasure slips into the feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old." I love the way he says that!
One story I liked was a memory he has of his father. Trond was afraid to cut back some stinging nettles because he thought it would hurt. His dad pulled them up with his bare hands, and then said, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." This becomes kind of a theme. When Trond is physically hurt or exhausted, he remembers those words and pushes on. I think it works on another level too. He is mourning his losses, but he is still in control. He can choose when it will hurt.

I really liked his explanation of how the people in town knew him.  He hasn't lived there long, but he has been friendly and made contacts.  That isn't the same as making friends. "People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decision you have made have turned you into who you are."  And he goes on.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but he doesn't have a lot of years with his dad. In one of the present day chapters, he explains, "I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that's what I have done for long as I can remember..."

There are significant moments and memories, but if you are looking for an action packed story, or even tidy resolutions, this is not your book. I noticed a real contrast between the last book I read, which also switched back to memories of the past, but followed a more traditional story line including conflict, rising action, climax, denoument, etc.  Out Stealing Horses doesn't follow that pattern at all.

There are questions left unanswered and characters you never really understand.  But for me, it totally works as a novel.  I liked how one summer has affected his whole life, or at least how he feels about his life.  As he dreams or remembers different moments and details of that summer, you can see the significance.  I thought about moments or conversations that proceeded to deeply affect the rest of my life.

Out Stealing Horses is poetic, in fact the final chapter begins with a paragraph that is repeated word for word a couple pages later.  Petterson's writing is so pretty, thoughtful and dreamy that I forget it was written in Norwegian.  So I am also impressed with Anne Born who translated it.

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