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No Showdowns Here

May 13, 2011

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses, Translated by Anne Born, 2006

The Village Voice reviewer complains that this novel frustrates “American expectations of showdowns and knockouts.”

Well, yes.

The narrator of Out Stealing Horses is Trond, a man in his sixties who, after losing the two people he loves most, seeks solitude and silence by moving to a cabin in an isolated part of Norway. There a neighbour turns out to be connected to tragic events that involved Trond in 1948, when he was fifteen.

The story moves between present and past to build our understanding of Trond and the main players in the earlier events, especially his father. There is action and drama, especially when the story extends back to the war years and the Nazi occupation of Norway. But mostly the novel proceeds quietly. Despite not being fast-paced, it kept me rapt as it progressively revealed more about the characters and the story. Intense feelings are suggested by outward behaviour. The imagery is striking – he conveys not only the visual experience of the Norwegian landscape, but what it feels like to be in it.

I am trying to pinpoint the differences between this type of fiction and that which the Village Voice reviewer would have preferred. Maybe he wanted Trond to be irrevocably damaged by the earlier trauma, leading to a showdown in the present. Or perhaps the writer should have used the redemption plotline, and made Trond a delinquent who is transformed into a better person by his experiences.

Of course Trond is affected by what happens. It is part of his growing up into the person he became, of learning to experience the joys and pains that together make up life, and of understanding the consequences of our choices for ourselves and others. He realises that significant parts of those we love, and even of ourselves, remain hidden. He reaches a quiet acceptance of what he has lived through and the person he has now become.

There are plenty of showdowns and knockouts in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but it was a chore to get through them. Out Stealing Horses is the more engaging book.

My thanks to Jacinta for recommending a novel that will stay with me.

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