A Staff Pick by Michael McGriff
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (Picador, 2005)
Availabe both New and Used at Tsunami
For me there’s really only one metric for determining a book recommendation, and it’s this question: Do I buy a used copy of this book every time I see it and drop it in the mail to an old friend? In the past, I’ve done this with James Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood, Henning Mankell’s introspective (non-crime) novel Italian Shoes, Richard Brautigan’s cult collection of short stories Revenge of the Lawn, and Amanda Coplin’s debut novel, The Orchardist. But the novel that’s burning at the white-hot center of my personal You-Must-Read-This list is Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian novelist (and former bookstore clerk) Per Petterson.
In 2005 Out Stealing Horses hit the bestseller lists in several countries and stayed there, becoming the title de jour of book groups, making all the Best-Of lists, and launching Petterson’s career in English-Speaking countries, especially after Horses was selected for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (one of the largest literary prizes in the world, the titles for which are submitted by librarians from around the globe).
The setup for this book is simple enough: a 67-year-old widower, Trond Sandor, retires to rural Norway from Oslo and reflects on his life; at least this is how the book gets you comfortable before it flips you on your head. British novelist L. P. Hartley famously begins his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” This sentiment is the perfect metaphor for Petterson’s novel, for what seems like an honest look into the past becomes, at times painfully, a true rediscovery of events that surprise as much as they terrify. In Horses, what starts out as a quiet assessment of widowhood and masculine self-reliance builds into a nuanced psychological drama as Trond discovers the truth about his father’s secret involvement as a Resistance smuggler during WWII, the painful facts of his parents’ marriage, the true motivations behind Trond's self-exile, and how all of these form a messy, fraught ecosystem.
The genius of Petterson’s writing is many-sided. For starters, the writing itself is absolutely fabulous; he uses concise and clear language that rolls the narrative ahead, blending straightforward prose with a high register that can only be described as poetic. Petterson is never afraid to be simple and direct, and he’s likewise never afraid to let beauty and high lyricism permeate his work. Keeping the reader off balance is part of Petterson’ gift—just as Trond teeters off balance as he discovers more and more about his past, the reader teeters off balance as Petterson shifts from present-moment action to deep flashback, from straight-ahead storytelling to poetic flourish (and even the occasional jolt of European surrealism). Never have I encountered a novel whose form and style have so perfectly mirrored both its content and the physiological world of its hero (or antihero, as the case may be). Add to this that the title itself—Out Stealing Horses—which crushes you under its ironic and metaphorical weight during the final pages, and what you have on your hands is a book worth buying and sending to a friend.