Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translator Anne Born

Sparkle added to familiar coming-of-age plot creates work of art
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This month sees the climax of a year-long programme of events to mark the centenary of Norway's independence from Sweden in 1905. Despite the artistic treasures on offer - from jazz to film, Ibsen plays to Munch self-portraits - some British pundits still insist on seeing Norway not as a place in its own right, but merely as a political test-case of the benefits or drawbacks of life outside the European Union.

They should take a break from such dreary polemics and read this novel, by one of Norway's finest living writers. It has a voice, a flavour and an atmosphere all its own, as distinct and compelling as the odour of summer forests that the young hero will remember all his life, "the smell of smoke, and timber and heather and sun-warmed stones and some special scent I had not noticed anywhere else than by this river".

On the face of it, Out Stealing Horses offers little new. Per Petterson creates a reflective narrator who, widowed and alone on the brink of the millennium, looks back to the summer of 1948 that changed for ever his sense of his parents, his world and himself. It's almost a Hollywood set-up, as the 15-year-old Trond has to negotiate a fatal accident that plunges his best friend into trauma, his father's extra-marital affair and imminent desertion, and even the wartime Nazi-defying heroics that lie behind this family crisis.

Yet Petterson does it all with immense subtlety and assurance, so this familiar coming-of-age plot sparkles like the northern sunlight on the river that winds and surges through the forest, and through the action of the novel.

The arrival of an ageing ghost from Trond's past "pulls aside the 50 years with a lightness that seems almost indecent". Petterson switches nimbly between the old man's and the teenager's perspective without any clumsy hindsight. Instead, the novel dwells on freedom, choice and fate - on those moments when "life had shifted its weight... from one leg to another, like a silent giant in the vast shadows against the ridge".

Trond has always believed that "we shape our lives ourselves", until these re-ignited memories shake his - and the reader's - urge to master destiny. The result is not merely a luminous story of the turning-points that waymark the end of childhood, but a genuine work of art. That description applies just as well to the wonderfully resonant and rhythmic translation by Anne Born.

Comments