I finally finished Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and found it redeemed in the last couple of pages. Throughout the book, I am sorry to say, I was often bored by its slow-moving narrative that mimicked the books’ frozen Nordic setting, its incredibly long sentences and its overall construction: the present was interspersed with the past, so momentum in both time-frames was interrupted before it could build. What is wonderful about subtle books, though, is that they can culminate with the smallest actions and these actions can feel monumental. Such was the case with Out Stealing Horses. The last few pages changed the terms of the book and certainly broke my heart a little.
In the end, what deflated the book for me was the fact that information was often repeated. Very early on, page-wise, we know a certain crushing fact about the narrator, Trond’s, family life. Nearly all of the action of the book takes place in the past, though, before the young Trond of old Trond’s memory knows this. It does not add suspense to the narrative–the reader isn’t trying to figure out why what happens happens as he/she does in novels like The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics. The reader learns more about his father’s war resistance efforts at the novel unfolds, which do in part explain why what happens does. But, I found this to be just another way, in addition to the structure, that momentum is sucked from the novel. I also stand by what I postulated in my earlier post regarding the fact that I read the book in translation–there was a remove pervading the writing that may or may not be there in the original. I’d love to hear from someone who had read the book in Norwegian.
But Mr. Petterson does write tragedy in an especially tragic way. The writing is never so beautiful as when it is recounting desperately sad expressions of grief–the novel is worth reading just for these few moments.
The novel, in many ways, is incredibly male–the characters Trond is mainly concerned with are male, primarily his father. His father’s presence and absence are the driving forces behind the narrative. At a certain point, though, it becomes clear that, though Trond dwells on his relationship with his father, there are two very important women that are absent from the novel because they are absent from his life: his sister and his second wife. His daughter’s brief appearance highlights the effect these deaths have had on her father.
The end of the novel pulled this thread even more taut by illuminating Trond’s relationship with a third woman: his mother, who was only a ghost presence in the rest of the novel. The last scene in the book is between the two of them. The scene takes place in a different country, but it is connected to all that came before, and all that the reader knows comes after. Trond and his mother have this fleeting, golden experience that is almost too much to take. It shows us that the novel had been about more than it let on. As much as this scene elevated the novel for me, given the choice, I would rather have read it on its own and saved the rest of the book for another, more patient, preferably Norwegian reader.