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Out Stealing Horses - Book of the Month

by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses is our book of the month, and probably of the year. It is as near to a perfect novel as I have read in a very long time.

The story is told by Trond, now an old man, who has isolated himself with his dog in the north-eastern corner of Norway where he plans to live out the rest of his life. It is a wild place of birch and spruce forests and a river that briefly leaves Sweden as it loops through Norway. He has left Oslo in search of silence and a simple life in tune with the seasons.

A chance encounter with a neighbour prompts memories of a time he spent there with his father when he was 15. He remembers the summer in their secluded cabin helping his father who is chopping down the trees on their land with mysterious haste. It is well before the logging season and the river is not yet full enough to transport the timber efficiently down river to the saw mill. While he is there he witnesses the effect of a family tragedy on his friend, Jon, and gradually becomes aware of layers of secrets within his own family.

Inevitably, the book is about that most troublesome relationship – of father and son – and they are painful lessons that Trond learns: when scything the grass, he ignores a clump of stinging nettles, and his father asks him why he hasn’t cut them down.

“I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
‘It will hurt,’ I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
‘You decide for yourself when it will hurt,’ he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other, throwing them into a heap, and he did not stop until he had pulled them all up.”

Out Stealing Horses deservedly won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The award goes equally to the author and the translator, Anne Born. Her translation is so good that I didn’t realise it wasn’t written in English until after I’d finished the novel.

If you want literary fireworks, this novel is not for you: there is nothing highly original or contrived about the book. But if you want a story that is simply and beautifully told, that is lucid, moving and profound, then get a copy of Out Stealing Horses, put a ‘do not disturb’ notice on your door, and prepare to lose yourself in the wilds of Norway.

Read our interview with Per Petterson.

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