I’ve mentioned that I love a good bildungsroman, but a bildungsroman set in Norway against the backdrop of a world war and recounted in present-day, decades later, by the man who has succeeded in suppressing the memories of his coming-of-age until they’re unearthed by happenstance? That, my friends, is what I like to call a bildungsroman dream come true.
In Out Stealing Horses, sixty-three-year-old Trond Sander is settling into his new home in the wooded countryside after living for many years in the busy city of Oslo. His intentionally solitary lifestyle is interrupted by a chance encounter with a neighbor, and the strangeness of their conversation reminds Trond of the summer of 1948, when he was a fifteen-year-old boy spending the summer with his father in the country helping him fell timber. As he remembers more and more about that summer, his narrative constantly oscillating between the present and the past, it’s revealed that his best friend was responsible for a family tragedy, that his father had a secret life he never knew about, and that that summer was the last time Trond ever saw his father.
Petterson’s writing is positively stunning. He has this really rare and impressive ability to tell dramatic stories without sensationalizing, to render the quotidian realistically whilst mining it for the profound. The prose is spare, measured, deliberate, but it also flows as smoothly and effortlessly as if it were truly a biographical narrative being told in real time, which is a testament to Petterson’s abilities as a writer. One of the things I love most about his writing is the way he marks the really important moments: it’s always a page-long paragraph with long-winded, almost stream-of-consciousness, sentences that begins with an innocuous thought and then shifts into an existential pondering and a profound revelatory moment that’s presented with consummate nonchalance. For example, when the present-day Trond is talking to the town mechanic about fixing up his house and his innate lack of handiness, he reflects to himself:
What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is 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 as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside a veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever. To me, he will never be older.
Memory is such a huge theme in this novel, especially the ways in which time shapes memories. There’s a scene early in the book where Trond’s father asks him to cut the grass behind the cabin with a scythe, and then notices that he’s avoided a patch of tall nettles.
“Why not cut down the nettles?” he said.
I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
“It will hurt,” I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
“You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and he did not stop before he had pulled them all up. Nothing in his face indicated that it hurt…
This sentiment is echoed throughout the book, perhaps most notably in the way that Trond approaches his memories: he is relentlessly stoic even in the face of palpably raw recollections of the summer that changed his life forever, and its fascinating to consider whether or not emotional self-control is all that’s needed to create a lasting stronghold against hurt and loss.
Out Stealing Horses is a beautiful novel that will leave a lasting impression on you with its poignance and quiet power. I encourage you: read this book.