Fiction prize winner's work is addled with memories

Boyd Tonkin salutes Per Petterson, winner of this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize
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The Independent Culture

An outsider has galloped through the field to take this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize - but what an outsider, and what a field! The £10,000 award has been won by Per Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born and published by Harvill Secker. Writer and translator share Britain's most valuable annual honour for literature in translation, again supported by Arts Council England and Champagne Taittinger.

Born in 1952, the author of six works of fiction, Per Petterson is already the winner of major awards in Norway, and reached the long-list of the Independent prize with his novel In the Wake. Out Stealing Horses lassooed the admiration and affection of our judging panel, and held them so firmly that the book prevailed in a shortlist crammed with memorable works by outstanding global figures. Unanimously, the judges - Paul Bailey, Margaret Busby, Maureen Freely, Kate Griffin and myself - placed Petterson's soaringly lyrical but bitingly perceptive tale of one life-changing summer and its aftermath ahead of its rivals.

In the runner's-up position came Imre Kertész's Fatelessness (translated by Tim Wilkinson; Harvill Secker), the astonishing autobiographical novel of a youth's passage through and beyond the Nazi death camps that helped claim the Nobel Prize for its Hungarian author in 2002. The third-ranked novel also deserves a credit: The Door by another Hungarian giant, Magda Szabó (trans. Len Rix; Harvill Secker), with its story of a writer's life-long entanglement with a heroic Budapest battleaxe. Three other strikingly original achievements made up the field: Pawel Huelle's Mercedes-Benz (trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones; Serpent's Tail), Tahar Ben Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light (trans. Linda Coverdale; Penguin), and Dubravka Ugresic's The Ministry of Pain (trans. Michael Henry Heim; Saqi).

So how did Per Petterson - and Anne Born - pull ahead of such distinguished company? At first glance, Out Stealing Horses looks like a charming but modest chamber-piece. In retrospect - and this is a novel that strikes deep and lingers long - its feels more like some shattering literary symphony. Petterson's fictional alchemy, served here by an impeccably paced and phrased translation, has transformed everyday materials into the brightest gold.

Around the millennium, in his isolated house in the Norwegian forests, a lonely widower remembers the summer of 1948. In this neck of the woods, near the Swedish border, 15-year-old Trond uncovered truths about himself, his family and the wider world that would direct his path through life. First, his best friend drops into a private hell of grief in the wake of a fatal accident. Then Trond comes to witness and grasp the tensions in his parents' marriage, and his soon-to-depart father's ambiguous role as a Resistance courier during the German occupation of Norway. Back in the present, a figure steps out of the woods, and the past, to shake the ageing Trond's sense of what these events have meant for the rest of an outwardly placid, inwardly unsettled life.

A coming-of-age story? Of course, but it's so much more than that label implies. Young Trond's awakening to the "secret life" of adults, with its tangled scrubland of desire and duplicity, marks the beginning of perplexity as much as wisdom. A beautifully expressed undercurrent of reflection on the battle of chance and choice, fate and free will, enriches every incident as Trond wonders how, and even if, he can emulate his beloved David Copperfield to appear as "the hero of my own life".

Never static, always shifting like the streams and trees, the family relationships flicker and shimmer between intimacy and distance. Present and past, the widower's memories and the teenager's discoveries, interact to sharpen insight and banish hindsight.

And, on every page, the woodlands and rivers, skies and shadows, of an enchanted but perilous landscape come to dancing life. Like the riverbank where son and father share their last days of togetherness, the whole novel has a "special scent I had not noticed anywhere else". This is an idyll, gorgeously evoked, but strewn with pitfalls. In the finest Scandinavian tradition, natural forces frame human hopes and fears: not pretty scenery, but a shaping spirit.

Prose this savoury, and this subtle, will make the fiercest demands on its translator. Anne Born rises grandly to the task. She captures every nuance of a novel composed with total assurance of touch and tone. Out Stealing Horses stole our hearts. We hope it does the same for you.