I have a hit and miss relationship with the New York Times best books of the year list. However, I’m always interested in what they choose. For 2007, one of their selections was Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, (Ut og sjæle hester, 2003; tr. from the Norwegian by Anne Born). When originally published, it picked up a handful of awards in Norway and has since picked up more recognition and more awards in its English translation.
After reading several fast-paced novels in a row, Out Stealing Horses at first felt like a long, deep breath — the kind of prose I could really settle down with. Elegiac in tone, the book begins in the fall of 1999 when Trond Sanders, our almost-septigenarian narrator, has moved to a small house with no phone or television to enjoy some solitude after a few hard years’ grieving.
In the first chapter Trond is awakened by a sound at night and goes outside to find his only slightly younger neighbor out searching for his wandering dog. Sheepishly, the neighbor admits to Trond that he once shot a dog when he was a young boy and since has never had the heart to do so again, but maybe the time has come.
This is the first of many weighty moments, where Petterson lets us know that there’s something underneath the prose that won’t be revealed for a while. This encounter at night with his neighbor disturbs Trond and he locks his door when he goes back in his cabin. It also takes Trond back to the summer of 1948, a formative summer of grief and undesired growth. In a line, we get another look at some of the underlying themes that won’t really show their significance until later (even though the mention of the German occupation and its teaser quality is far from subtle):
It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.
At fifteen, Trond is living with his father in another old cabin, getting ready to log their land. Trond’s friend Jon comes one night to go out stealing horses, something they just do sometimes. In one of the most compelling parts of the book, Trond and Jon go to the neighbors to ride his horses — but even in the rush there’s something strange and unsettling to me in the prose, one of my first experiences with distaste in the novel:
There was a rushing sound, and the hoof beats died down, and the horse’s back drummed through my body like the beating of my heart, and then there was a sudden silence around me that spread over everything, and through that silence I heard the birds. I distinctly heard the blackbird from the top of a spruce tree, and clear as glass I heard the lark high up and several other birds whose song I did not know, and it was so weird, it was like a film without sound with another sound added, I was in two places at once, and nothing hurt.
To me the last sentence seems like it is really straining to be clever but that the final effect is not worth it, and the word “weird” doesn’t fit the tone for me. Unfortunately, this was just the first of a few annoyances that eventually overcame my enjoyment with the book.
Nevertheless, back to the story, and back to one of the parts that really did capture me fully and made the book worth my time. All seems normal, from Trond’s rather naïve perspective as he and his friend finish their thrill with the horses. But then Jon takes him to see a nest in a tree and then destroys the nest in a trembling stupor of anger. Then Jon climbs down the tree and begins walking home, going neither fast nor slow. Confused, Trond walks home, unsure whether to run up to walk by Jon.
Again we have a surprising jab, a moment of obvious weight but with a mysterious cause. In this case, Trond cannot account for it, has no idea what is going on. Slowly, flashing back and forth from 1999 to 1948, the novel unwinds and Trond finds out what has happened and becomes himself implicated. With some compelling scenes from 1943 during the German occupation of Norway (something I had never really considered before, and something that made the book that much more interesting to me), we have a really interesting story.
The main problem, at least for me, was the prose. While at first I enjoyed the swaying feel of the long sentences, by the middle of the book I was drifting too far away. When I wanted the book to move on, it slowed down and I mean really slowed down — some sentences went on and on, line after line without a break. In fact, that is the reason I have no more pulled quotes in here. I didn’t want to type up many of these sentences. Sometimes long, run-on sentences work well and are impressive and effective, but I didn’t feel that with Out Stealing Horses. Eventually it just felt overdone, the effect wore off, and I got annoyed and just wanted to finish the book rather than engage with the story.
Now, writing the review, having the story in my mind without having to trudge through the slow sentences, I find that I did enjoy it. The story itself is impressive, in a gloomy kind of way. And often the slower style worked well. In fact, it’s been a long time since I noticed so much silence in a book. It made the important sounds much more powerful. Unfortunately, I felt like too much of it flagged, distracting me from the parts I genuinely did enjoy.