Out Stealing Horses
By Per Petterson
Translated by Anne Born
Graywolf Press / 258 pages / $22
Betrayal: It's a theme found in everything from Genesis to Greek tragedy to Shakespeare's tragic (and comic) plays to the great classic works of such writers as Gustav Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and Henrik Ibsen. Usually that theme is played out when friend betrays friend, spouse betrays spouse or child betrays parent.
But what happens when a father betrays his son? That's the question informing Per Petterson's extraordinary novel, Out Stealing Horses.
Does a father's betrayal have any far-reaching effects - especially when the son is 15 years old and knows that something is happening but can't understand what it is ?
A Norwegian author in his mid-50s, Petterson started his literary career with the publication of a well-received short story collection in 1987. Since then, he has established a reputation as one of Norway's best fiction writers. His following increased in 1997, when his third novel, In the Wake, was translated into English.
Out Stealing Horses, his fifth novel, has garnered several illustrious awards. Originally published in 2003 in Norway, it won the Norwegian Booksellers Prize and the Critics Prize for Literature there. Translated into English in 2005, the novel received the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006, which Petterson shared with the book's translator, Anne Born.
In May 2007, shortly before its publication in the United States, the novel won the 12th International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for works published in English, with Petterson receiving $133,000, the world's richest literary prize for a single book of fiction.
A coming-of-age story with a compelling twist, the novel begins in 1999 and flashes back to the summer of 1948. Both times were moments on the cusp of change, as Trond Sanders, the story's 67-year-old narrator, sees it. Trond's own life has changed since the recent death of his second wife in a car accident and Trond's subsequent move to a cabin in the country.
This coincidentally happens to be the place his father stayed when he went off on his own and away from Trond, his mother and sister. Trond never knew what his father did during his frequent absences but had his suspicions. Now, in the scope of this quiet novel, Trond sorts through those suspicions.
Reading the book feels like watching clouds change shape. Events seem to float, and nothing much happens, at least visibly. Then one can see how the implications add up. Petterson achieves this dreamy effect mostly through his description, which never interrupts the action of the story but seems to grow quite naturally from it.
Trond had last been to the cabin when, at 15, he helped his father harvest lumber during that fateful summer of '48. Remembering that this was the final summer that he would spend with his father, Trond feels nostalgic. He also feels angry, puzzled and depressed about the past. One soon learns that despite his relatively young age, Trond is ready to die and has separated himself from his family. There's nothing physically wrong with him, but he suffers from a spiritual angst in which he feels disconnected from the world around him.
The story moves seamlessly between present and past as a passage in Dickens, a walk with his dog, a conversation with a neighbor, a visit to town or the feel of the forest stirs memories. As Trond reflects on everything from cars to natural (and supernatural) phenomena, his descriptions of nature - although somewhat lengthy - seem especially evocative, so much so that nature itself becomes a presence in the tale.
Here's an example: "Outside the blue hour has arrived. Everything draws closer; the shed, the edge of the wood, the lake behind the trees, it is as if the tinted air binds the world together and there is nothing disconnected out there. That's a good thing to think about, but whether it is true or not is a different matter. To me, it is better to stand alone, but for the moment the blue world gives a consolation I am not sure I want, and do not need, and still I take it. ... "
Trond's reflections are sparked by another coincidence. This one involves his neighbor, Lars, a man in his early 60s, who, Trond realizes, is the younger brother of Jon, Trond's boyhood friend who mysteriously disappeared. Jon's careless handling of a loaded shotgun is a catalyst for the novel's central event, which brought Jon's family even closer to Trond's father.
Trond tries to decide whether there was something more than a neighborly connection between the families. Since he had a boyhood crush on Jon's attractive, youthful mother, did he imagine this connection? Trond's mother had become bitter since his father's efforts resisting the German wartime occupation took him away from their home in Oslo.
Eventually Trond learns during his stay at the cabin that that there was more than one secret behind his father's covert activity. And after so many years, a long-hidden secret would still affect him.
The richly nuanced description of Trond's journey of discovery offers ample evidence of this book's emotional and intellectual power.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. Her next book, "Reading Lips," will be published in 2007.