Reviewed by Radhika Jones
The narrator of Out Stealing Horses, sixty-seven-year-old Trond, is a man equally consumed by his past and his present. This balancing act between the reflectiveness of age and the action of youth gives structure to Per Petterson's affecting fifth novel, his second to be published in translation in the United States and the winner of the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Trond, who has recently lost his wife, settles in a remote spot in the far east of Norway seeking contentment in isolation. Instead he comes across a childhood acquaintance, one whose presence calls vividly to mind the summer he spent working with his father in this countryside in 1948 as a fifteen-year-old boy. Catalyzed by his memory of a tragic accident that happened that summer, which Petterson narrates with brilliant economy and suspense, the novel expands from a single man's meditations on aging and solitude to the story of a community struggling to recover from the scars of World War II and the German occupation of Norway, and the fatal toll that this struggle has taken on its families. As Petterson's narrative unfolds in these surprising directions, his protagonist seeks less to understand the traumatic events of the past (they are at a certain point incomprehensible) than simply and realistically to come to terms with them.
Trond is a ruminative character, but Petterson invigorates his story by making physical labor in nature an integral part of that rumination, bringing the Norwegian landscape into the forefront of Trond's experience as boy and man alike. In both periods, work brings people from their homes and provides a context for companionship, conflict, and sometimes illumination; the trees and waterways of Norway are forces of nature, and the activities they generate-whether the full-scale logging that Trond and his father attempt in 1948 or the clearing away of a fallen tree from his driveway after a storm in the present-make their own demands of character and action. For other novelists, Trond's reckoning with the past might have sufficed as subject; for Petterson, however, mental exertion goes hand in hand with physical effort, and the result is a central character who is both away from the world and singularly of it-a striking combination. Trond's interaction with his environment grounds the novel and gives it life, an effect all the more resonant for the chronicle of loss that his story entails.
In the Wake, Petterson's American debut, also deals with loss but from a much closer perspective. The narrator, Arvid, is a forty-three-year-old writer whose parents and two younger brothers died six years earlier in a ferry disaster, leaving him and his surviving brother to mourn them. He cannot write in the face of this tragedy; more than that, he can scarcely exist, and the vivid memories of his family and of his life before they perished comprise a near physical onslaught on a mind overtaxed by grief. Less formally mediated than Out Stealing Horses, in which the tragedies of the past are tempered by the reflections of a less tumultuous present, In the Wake trades on the raw quality of its emotions; its overarching question is whether Arvid can survive or whether the accident will in the end pull him under, too. The overtures he makes into the world of the living–toward his brother, who in the face of an impending divorce is undergoing his own struggle to survive, and toward two neighbors who offer strange, unlikely solace–are the gestures of a man who could be waving or drowning and who himself does not know which he would prefer. The despair Petterson portrays in this novel is of a violent and volatile nature, courting fistfights on the one hand and sexual passion on the other; it defies novelistic resolution except insofar as Arvid can acknowledge its unbearable nature.
For the very rawness of its effect and the verisimilitude of its grief (which has an autobiographical basis–like his narrator, Petterson lost his parents in a ferry accident), In the Wake is a difficult book to read. But it pays off in moments of plain, stark observation: Arvid's recollection that a particular memory takes place at a time when “no one was divorced yet, no one had died”; his remark that the very idea of family is perhaps “too risky” a proposition for him to embrace again. In these admissions, and in the mundane tasks that can make up a day–the buying of a newspaper, the finding of one's keys–Petterson suggests at once the overwhelming, unrelenting nature of grief and the ways in which it might be lived with.
Radhika Jones is managing editor of the Paris Review.