Although Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is set in rural Norway and is a work of fiction in translation, it fits into a genre that readers of literary fiction will find familiar.
As in L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (from which Petterson actually lifts a quote towards the end), as in John Banville's The Sea, we have an elderly man looking back on the events of a fateful summer when he was caught up in a web of events and powerful adult emotions that he is not yet equipped to deal with, and can only make sense of in retrospect. But whatever happened back then has left him emotionally stunted as an adult, and his only chance to heal his spirit is to finally make sense of it all.
The pivotal question, asked late in Out Stealing Horses, is whether its protagonist is the hero of his own life (the reference is lifted from Dickens' David Copperfield) or whether he abdicated that role to others. This certainly seems to be the case.
Petterson's novel shifts between three layers of time. Trond Sander, now 67 when the novel opens in 1999, has sold up all his possessions and moved to a secluded house in the far east of Norway where he intends to live out his days in solitude and simplicity. But an encounter with his neighbour, whom he recognises from his past bring memories flooding back of a fateful summer shortly after the war. Lars Haug, he realises, is the younger brother of his once best friend.
In 1948, 15 year old Trond is staying in a small cabin near the Swedish border with his father during the summer vacation. Ostensibly the trip is part holiday, part opportunity for a bit of father-son bonding.
Trond befriends Jon, the son of one of a neighbouring farmer, and the two are always off on outdoor adventures together. Very early one morning Jon invites his friend to come "Out stealing horses" (an expression which acquires other connotations in the book) but in this instance he just means riding the horses in a local farmer's field.
Later, while destroying a bird's nest, Jon suddenly seems to experience some sort of a breakdown, and it turns out that he left his hunting rifle at home forgetting to take the bullets out. Jon's two younger brothers fought over it, and Lars accidentally killed his twin brother. Trond never sees his friend again, as Jon disappears off to sea.
It strikes me that if a film were ever made of the novel (as I think must surely happen) it will be a whole different animal from the book. Films deal with sharply realised details, and close-ups. Petterson gives us only parts of the story, and then often in long distance shots, leaving space for us to create much of the story for ourselves. Trond gradually uncovers pieces of the story of his father's role in the Norwegian resistance during the war, and about the true nature of his relationship with Jon and Lars' mother. He also only later comes to realise why his father is so insistent that the trees around the cabin must be felled, and the logs floated downriver to a sawmill in Sweden, even though it is completely the wrong season to do this (the river too low to float timber effectively, the trunks heavy with sap.)
The novel is richly atmospheric with evocative descriptions of landscape careful descriptions of the practicalities of rural life.
Ann Born's translation captures the narrator's voice very well*, the slight hesitance at the beginning as he searches for a way to tell his story, the long run on sentences when he becomes excited, the terse exchanges of dialogue.
The novel has deservedly garnered plenty of accolades. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award 2006, last year's IMPAC Dublin Prize, and was a top ten New York Times Notable Book.
(*I must point out though that I found some grammatically questionable sentences in places and am surprised proofreaders did not pick these up.)