Out stealing horses is an elegiac reminiscence of 67-year-old man named Trond Sander. Following the death of his second wife, he moved to a remote settlement in Norway where he and his family used to spend their childhood holidays under German occupation. In this small village, he met up with his old neighbour named Lars Haug. Lars was the younger brother of Trond’s childhood friend Jon whom Trong frequently being invited for a titular teenage prank of stealing the neighbour’s horses. Lars has a twin brother who died in a tragic domestic accident when he is 9, and Jon was indirectly responsible for it.
The tragedy became the catalyst of a pattern of family ruptures, which affects almost all of the male characters in the neighbourhood. All chosen to walk out on their family, never to return or even maintain contact with the community of the village. Trong recalls the feeling of both the nostalgia and regret of deserting a place that he grew up with and then coming back to it again.
The story vacillates between Trond’s present life and the life of his teenage’s memory, and in most part consist of round of wood-chopping and dog-walking with Lyra the dog, timber floor at home creaking, shopping, cooking, nightly reading of Dickens and immersion in the life of the forest to lend an atmospheric setting and life in the nature of forest and wildlife where the main sustenance is timber and main thought is to survival preparation during winter.
As Trond’s describe himself as “A shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except in his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence”, Trond’s memory goes back and forth from current to the past. Like the parable of peeling an onion layer by layer, the reader came to understand the turning points that happened in his life and the neighbourhood, with the milkmaid singing and Jon’s attractive mother, the clandestine secret maneuvres of local partisans and the scenes of un-lodging the timber that got stuck on the downstream on the way down to the saw mill; we come to know about the family and political betrayal, the threads of fragmented family and village relationships and how much a son looks up to his father for approval and love.
I feel pretty spry. But when I listen to the news it no longer has the same place in my life. It does not affect my view of the world as once it did. Maybe there is something wrong with the news, the way it is reported, maybe there’s too much of it. – page 4.
Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking. – page 6.
So to remember the past as if he hasn’t lose it, the stories and truth came out from the novel, as if time stood still and pass slowly for the protagonist to finally understand the meaning of it all.
A slight heightening climax appears in the later part of the novel. Back in 1948 Trond and his father left Oslo to spend a summer in a cabin in the woods not far from the Swedish border, which led to Trond making his own conclusion about the disappearance of his father without seeing him for weeks on end. I find the last chapter narrating Trond’s day trip with his mother a little disjointed from the entire grand scheme of things. Trond never once or hardly mention his mother’s reaction or presence in any of the events but suddenly there she is, featured at the end of the novel. I find it a little strange but I wonder if I may have missed an earlier clue that led to this?
We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was fifteen. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.
Don’t be misled about the title though. It is not about horses nor it is about a thrilling account of riding a horse by stealth. It is a quiet novel about conveying a profound sense of time passing, things that is left unsaid in the past, the cold and tranquil landscape of the Nordic, and a mastery of conveying loads with mere effort of short sentences. Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born, I can see why this novel won the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I assume all Per Petterson’s books are like this, evocative and quiet, which requires reader to read and savour; but I was too in hurry shuffling between work and home on weekdays, (and also weekends!) to enjoy this novel. More suited to read with a cup of warm tea, curled up in your day bed, with a window view and a few hours of uninterrupted peace and quiet. Nah, unfortunately I am not going to get that. 😦
In more peaceful days of my life in the future, I will read another Per Petterson’s novel. I think he is deep.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage 2006; Length: 264 pages; Setting: Contemporary and 1948 Norway. Source: Westminster London Library. Finished reading at: 1 December 2011. Translated by Anne Born.
Caribousmom: I was mesmerized by this book. Seemingly a simple tale, it later reveals itself to be a complex study of grief and loss. This is not a book to be read quickly, but one which should be savored. Highly recommended.
Kim@readingmatters: Essentially, this is a coming-of-age story, but it is written so eloquently and with such a love for Nature — the descriptions of woods, waterways and the changing seasons is pure magic — that the reader falls under a kind of spell and does not want the story to end. I found it a deeply atmospheric read that transported me to another time and place as if I, too, was out in the Norwegian countryside rowing down the river or riding horses bareback through the forest. It’s a truly accomplished and evocative read.
About the writer:
Per Petterson (born 18 July 1952, Oslo) is a Norwegian novelist. Petterson’s debut was Aske i munnen, sand i skoa (1987), a collection of short stories. He has since published a number of novels to good reviews. To Siberia (1996), a novel set in the Second World War, was published in English in 1998 and nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. His novel I kjølvannet, translated as In the Wake (2002), is a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990; it won the Brage Prize for 2000. His 2008 novel Jeg forbanner tidens elv (I Curse the River of Time) won The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for 2009, with an English translation published in 2010. Petterson’s father, brother and nephew died with her, when a ferry caught fire on the overnight sailing from Oslo to Frederikshavn in northern Denmark (159 people lost their lives) (article: Guardian UK)
His breakthrough novel was Ut og stjæle hester (2003) which was awarded two top literary prizes in Norway – the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award. The 2005 English language translation, Out Stealing Horses, was awarded the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (the world’s largest monetary literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English (€100,000). In the December 9. 2007 issue of the New York Times Book Review Out Stealing Horses was named one of the 10 best books of the year. Petterson is a trained librarian. He has worked as a bookstore clerk, translator and literary critic before becoming a full-time writer. He cites Knut Hamsun and Raymond Carver among his influences.