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5th November
2009
written by Steph

If you recall, not that long ago I wrote about how I’m an intuitive reader and I’m all about reading books that suit my mood; I’ve gotta read books at the right time for me.  My experience reading Out Stealing Horses was definitely an example of this.  I’ve been sick since last Tuesday night, and while many of my symptoms have finally been vanquished, I’ve been completely EXHAUSTED the past few days.  Consequently, I haven’t been doing much reading as I’ve just been too tired.  I was in one of those terrible lethargic states where each book I picked up either felt too taxing or simply failed to hold my attention.  I finished my last book on October 24, so you can see that it’s been almost two weeks since I’ve really been able to read anything. I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up Out Stealing Horses as it’s been sitting on our shelves for almost a year (if not more) and it just never felt like the right time.  I was in such a finicky mood – I wanted a book that was engaging and a page turner, but it couldn’t be manic and wild, because my poor brain just couldn’t keep up with any kind of frenetic writing, nor any prose that was too complicated.  I wanted something straightforward that would keep me happily reading so I could forget about how miserable I was feeling physically. From the opening paragraph, I was captivated.  I’m not sure I’ve talked about it before, but I think it bears mentioning that the very best books are not the slow boils that gradually reel you in, but the ones that hook you from the very first line.  With a strong opening line, I pretty much feel myself tumbling into a story, and there’s nothing quite like it.  Now, I will persevere with plenty of books that don’t nab me right away, always trying to remember that sometimes stories need time to develop and that I should at least give a book its first chapter to try to work its wiles on me.  But let’s be honest, it’s always best when you don’t feel like you’re working your butt off to give a book a fair shot, but when it instead whisks you off your feet from the very start.
“Early November.  It’s nine o’clock.  The titmice are banging against the window.  Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again.  I don’t know what they want that I have.  I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake.  It is starting to blow.  I can see the shape of the wind on the water.”
I am not certain that this style of writing would normally appeal to me – you see that it is sparse, almost terse, and yet this crisp succinctness was exactly the kind of prose my flu-addled brain could deal with. Talk about being in the right state of mind! No long, wending sentences for me to get tangled in.  Just direct and clear prose.  Normally I might have found this writing too plain and simple to appeal, and certainly at times while reading I did have a subtle sense of this, but it really worked for me this time.  There were moments where the writing itself felt inherently Norwegian (though I would say this is probably a very good translation), and while this inorganic English may have bothered me at other times, this time I felt it only heightened the reading experience, really allowing me to feel as though I were slowly being ensconced by the rural wilderness of the country Petterson was writing about.  Ultimately I came to feel the novel was intensely atmospheric, and I swiftly developed a strong yearning to see Norway with my own eyes and inhale its crisp air, swim in its icy rivers, certainly something I’d never had the desire to experience previously.  The writing was so calm and reserved, the setting so quiet and peaceful, I couldn’t help but feel soothed by this gentle novel. The story itself is not exactly what I’d call a pageturner, and I think that if the writing hadn’t worked as well for me, I probably would have felt it was quite dull.  Through interleaved narratives, we learn the story of Trond, presently an old man in his 60s who has retreated to a cabin in the wake of the death of his wife and is trying to cut as many ties as he can with the rest of the world.  His time alone reminds himself of the summer he spent with his father in a similar cabin not too far away, and he recounts and works through the various painful experiences of that summer. At times the narration revolving around Trond’s father and the influence he had on him strongly reminded me of my most recent read, Looking After Pigeon which I reviewed here.  Both stories involve retrospective narratives, and both involve main characters who are deeply affected by their fathers (or lack thereof).  Generally speaking, I think I preferred this one to the other, but it did still leave me with a lot of loose ends, or elements where I wasn’t sure why some of the events related were so scarring/insurmountable.  That’s not to say I had no notion of this, because for all his stolidity, I felt that Petterson winds up writing in a very emotional way in the end, and actually manages to make the cold veneer for Trond work, in part because we start to see the cracks in it.  Clearly much of Trond’s identity is wrapped up in this idea of denying pain, pushing it away, and mastering it – only showing it on his terms, only conceding it exists when he has decided it does… so the fact that he has recoiled onto himself and is bruised worked for me. Still, for a man in his 60s to reflect on his time as 15 year-old is all well and good, but I have realized having read two such similar books in quick succession that I am always left wondering about the intervening years.  I feel like humans are remarkably resilient, and while I won’t argue that things from our youth vanish as we age, certainly one would assume that over 50 years or so, these pains might lessen, given all the other things Trond has presumably experienced.  I felt like I was only beginning to plumb the depths of Trond, and I wanted more insight that just never came.  There's this great part in the novel when Trond is remarking that we tell people things about ourselves and they walk away thinking that they know us, but really they simply know about us, but they don't really know what makes us tick and who we are at our very core. How ironic that this would be the large problem for me with respect to this novel! I think that apart from this issue of feeling there were hanging questions that are never satisfactorily resolved, I did also feel like the narrative got confused at times, in that I was never sure what exactly was driving Trond.  Was it his friend Jon and his family’s tragedy?  Jon’s mother?  Trond’s father?  Trond’s mother?  All of these things?  Perhaps that’s the best answer, and yet since none of these threads are nicely knotted at the end, and would randomly resurface every now and then, I wasn’t sure what to make of any of them, and that was too bad. All in all, I felt this wasn’t really a book I read for the story, but one I read for the atmosphere and the feelings it evoked.  I felt I could so clearly see Norway, and I could even feel Trond’s pain, even though I didn’t fully understand it… What started off as somewhat bare prose gradually evolved into something very beautiful and fragile, and I really appreciated that.  I am sure that if I had read this last year or whenever it was that this book was getting praised all over the place I would likely have been disappointed, so I’m glad I finally waited until the time was right.  At times it reminded me of the melancholy restraint in Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, and oddly at times, also of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (though not nearly so bleak and scary... just something about the wilderness).  If you’re in the mood for a quiet, reflective novel that is slow on action but will transport you to the hinterlands of Norway, I’m not sure you can do much better than this. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. 11/05/2009

    I haven’t read any Petterson, but I do have a copy of To Sbieria, which I’ve heard excellent things about. It does sound like the kind of writing I would like, even if this particular book was a mixed success for you.

  2. 11/06/2009

    @ Teresa: I really came to like the writing and felt it improves throughout the book, I only wished the plotting had been a tad tighter. It’s fine that it’s largely a contemplative novel but there were too many things left dangling for me to fully enjoy this one. I hope you have good success with To Siberia. I think I would be open to reading more Petterson in the future, but I don’t feel compelled to rush out and read everything he’s done based on this book alone.
     
    @ Kathleen: It’s funny because I don’t think it would have worked so well for me at other times, but this time it felt like I just slid right into the story. I love when that happens!
     
    @ Claire: The worst part of this illness has been the complete lack of interest in reading! Seriously, awful. But I’m glad I was finally able to get to this one and to polish it off. Sometimes a gentle read with really evocative writing is just the ticket to recovery. I think the writing might be slightly stronger here than in Crow Lake, but the story there is probably more compelling (and heartbreaking). Both are good though, so I hope you enjoy them!
     
    @ Jackie: Yes, I saw your review in which you mentioned you were horridly disappointed by this one. I completely understand why you found it dull, and I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t, but in the end, while the writing isn’t the best I’ve ever read, it was sufficiently strong that I wanted to keep reading it. Based on that I was able to overlook the glacial plotting.

  3. 11/05/2009

    Sounds like a good book for me to read when I want to be transported to Norway. The opening paragraph would have grabbed me too! Glad you are feeling better.

  4. I hope you fully recover soon, Steph! I have this on my shelves and I am waiting for a similarly right time (here’s hoping it is without the illness) to read it. I also have Crow Lake on my TBR pile and need to slot in some gentle, beautiful, melancholic reading time soon.

  5. I thought this book was dull! There were a few good sections, but most of the time I was bored with it. I had seen so many people raving about it, so was surprised that it was so dull. I’m not going to read any more of his books!

  6. 11/07/2009

    I read this one a few years ago and really loved it. You’re right, it’s a gentle read and not really a page-turner, but there’s something so eloquent and atmospheric about the writing that it’s hard not to become completely absorbed in it.

    I’ve since read two of Petterson’s other books that have been translated into English and they are, in my opinion, even better than this one. Both books — To Siberia and In The Wake — are quietly devastating reads that leave you with a funny feeling that you can’t shake off for days afterwards. For that reason, I regard him as one of my favourite novelists, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next (or what the translators will finally get around to translating).

  7. 11/07/2009

    First of all, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been sick! I hope you feel better soon. I know what you mean about the power of a great opening line. I love it when a story manages to hook me from the very first page.

    As for Out Stealing Horses, if the rest of your review hadn’t sold me, the very last line would have.

  8. 11/08/2009

    @ kimbofo: I haven’t heard much about Petterson apart from this novel, so it’s nice to hear that his other “less hyped” books are just as good, if not better. I will certainly be trying other things by him in the future, so thanks for the tips!
     
    @ Nymeth: Feeling better now, which is fantastic. I hope that if you do try this one that you enjoy the writing as much as I did! Definitely some wonderful armchair traveling!

  9. I’ve seen mixed reviews on this one, but am glad to see you enjoyed it. I really liked your comment about enjoying this for the atmosphere as opposed to the story and will keep that in mind when I finally get around to reading this one.

  10. 11/09/2009

    Very interesting review. I think it’s really clear that the writing did much more for you than the actual story did, and I also think that it’s interesting that this story reminded you so much of Looking After Pigeon. I agree with your statement about humans being very resilient, so I would also be curious that the effects of a particular time period didn’t become a bit more diluted, especially seeing as fifty years had passed. I know that for me personally, the intense emotion of things from the past definitely seems to lessen over time. I’m glad that it was such a perfect read for you while you were so sick.

  11. 11/09/2009

    This is one of those books that I didn’t like, and I feel like I’m not one of the smart kids because I didn’t like it. The writing didn’t work for me, in fact, I think I found the translation to be clunky. I don’t think I need to be reminded through poor English that we’re not in Kansas anymore. The not-so-English names and descriptions should suffice, in my opinion.

    I seem to be in the minority, though, so I’m obviously missing something! 🙂

  12. 11/10/2009

    @ Melissa: I can see how reception of this book would be mixed, because I myself think if I had not read it specifically at this time, I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much! I think you really have to be in the mood for a quiet novel in order for it to work.
     
    @ zibilee: It was really weird to see such strong parallels to Pigeon, but I definitely felt them. In a similar way to that book, this one made me wonder why these events of the past were so devastating and insurmountable. The plot got choppy at times, but there were things to enjoy nonetheless.
     
    @ trish: I did read your review and saw you didn’t like this book. I think the writing didn’t bother me because I know it was written by a Norwegian, and for all I know, they may say things like “Sit you down”. And there wasn’t really all that much dialogue, so jarring things like that didn’t happen all that often in my opinion. True, there was something about the writing that felt unlike most writing taking place in North America, but that really didn’t bother me. I thought the descriptions of the Norwegian wilderness were really effective and vivid, but I could see how someone hoping for a bigger more robust story would be disappointed.

  13. 11/11/2009

    The writing captivated me but the story (or lack of one) and the atmospheric mood didn’t really do it for me. I got a bit bored when the book becomes dry. It’s not a page turner to me, nor is The growth of the Soil, another Norweigian novel.

  14. taryn
    11/15/2009

    hey Steph,

    Guess what? I’ve got this book on my shelf too!! It seems that a couple of times a year, the sales force gets sent a trade book from one of our sister publishers, along with an inspirational note from the boss about “keeping up the good work” or “rewarding yourself” or whatnot. Obviously, as soon as i saw the title i squealed with delight and flipped it over to read the back cover, eager to dig into a book that condones my innate desire for a pony, only to find that it wasn’t REALLY about stealing horses. So i put it back down…

    Do you think our favourite Scandinavian writer, Mr. 35-and-condemned-to-saddle-bag-thighs, will ever get his work published in English??

    Finally, in other book-related news, i’ve now read 2 of the 3 Peter Carey books you helped me pick out at McKay’s. I’m trying to finish this travel/humour book i got last birthday, then i think i might tackle “In The Woods”… if i can work my courage up 😉

    Hope you’re enjoying NYC!!

  15. 11/16/2009

    @ Taryn: I should have known the (misleading) promise of ponies would lure you in! But it’s true, there isn’t really much to do with horses proper in the book, which I’m sure was disappointing to the extreme!
    Funny you should mention Saddlebag Thighs, as Sarah brought him up this weekend too! For what reason, I cannot remember, though it may have been when I showed her the new Jasper Fforde…
    And, glad to hear you have been enjoying the Careys you picked up here in town… I hope you do find the courage to try In The Woods because it is goo-ooo-ood!
    Oh, and NYC was a blast… but we will do a recap post sometime this week, so you’ll have to wait until then to hear all about it!

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