Out Stealing Horses is one of those books you read too fast the first time through because the story and the writing are so compelling you can’t slow yourself down. However, you know you will read it again to catch all the marvelous layers and nuances you raced past the first time.
Sixty-eight-year-old Trond Sander moves from Oslo to a remote rundown cabin in the forests of eastern Norway to escape a tragedy in his past. The cabin’s setting (and his nearest neighbor) send his mind spinning back to the year he was fifteen and spent the summer with his father in a similar cabin. One of the book’s great beauties is Trond’s perspective on the events of the summer: he is both the boy living through it and the man trying to make sense of it. To call it a coming-of-age story does not do the book justice; the adult Trond’s history is as much a part of the story as the teenaged Trond’s.
The frame of the older Trond’s daily activities—repairing the cabin, cutting up a fallen tree, walking the dog—surrounds and illuminates the young Trond’s summer of felling logs, getting into mischief with his best friend, and camping with his father. Trond comes to understand the things he witnessed as a teenager but did not fully grasp: the aftermath of a tragic accident, the impact a war has on the people who survive it, and the complexities of his own father.
Mr. Petterson (with the help of translator Anne Born) writes with a spare beauty that grabs the reader immediately. He mines humor from the day Trond and his father did handstands naked in the rain. He perfectly describes the not-quite-relationships of casual neighbors:
People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook.
He writes with breathtaking imagination about death:
…I thought about how it must feel to lose your life so early. Lose your life, as if you held an egg in your hand, and then dropped it, and it fell to the ground and broke. And I knew it could not feel like anything at all. If you were dead, you were dead, but in the fraction of a second just before; whether you realized then it was the end, and what that felt like. There was a narrow opening there, like a door barely ajar that I pushed towards, because I wanted to get in that crack that came from the sunlight on my eyelids, and then suddenly I slipped inside, and I was certainly there for a little flash, and it did not frighten me at all, just made me sad and astonished at how quiet everything was.
However, all of Mr Petterson’s observations are firmly grounded in the earthy reality of the forest, the river, and the living creatures around Trond. Horses, dogs, cows, and various birds trot and fly through his past and present, tying him always to the natural world. The book opens with titmice crashing into his window and his comment that “I don’t know what they want that I have.” Norway’s dramatic weather impacts both mood and action, and the reader is always aware of the elements and what effect they have on the story.
Mr. Petterson looks into the human psyche with perception, compassion, and an occasional wry smile. Now please excuse me while I re-read this glorious book.
You lucky blog readers got a full review of this book because I write reviews for a local publication and included this book. Hope you enjoyed the longer version of my recommendation. My apologies for the slightly odd formatting; when I copied in the review it went all wonky on me and I can’t get it to straighten out. Fortunately, it’s still readable, I think.