“You decide for yourself when it will hurt” – Per Petterson’s ‘Out Stealing Horses’ #AW80BOOKS

I can’t remember whose review it was that initially prompted me to buy Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), but along with the many other rave-review inspired, late night, impulse purchases, it has sat gathering dust somewhere in the TBR mountain ever since. While it has occasionally made it onto the ‘Ip, dip, doo’ shortlist (my unfailing method for picking what to read next) until now, it’s never quite found its moment. Before Christmas, I posted about the various titles I was considering reading to satisfy my need for wintry snow, and as Petterson’s novel is set in Norway, it got pulled off the shelf and added to the heap. It might well have been passed over yet again if it hadn’t been for roughghost’s comment at the foot of my post that Out Stealing Horses was one of his all time favourite novels – well, I could hardly ignore such high praise, could I? Luckily, it also ticks off another destination on my #AroundtheWorldin80Books reading challenge to boot!

I ended up picking up Out Stealing Horses after bingeing on murder mysteries, and the contrast in pace and tone could not have been more dramatic. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, Trond, an elderly man who chooses to live in solitude in a remote part of Norway, is preparing his house for the coming winter. One night, a noise outside disturbs his sleep. It is a neighbour calling for his missing dog. Trond helps him look and  the dog eventually returns. After they’ve headed home, Trond realises that he used to know the man, many years ago. Memories begin to flood back to that time when, aged fifteen, he spent the summer in the country with his father and a tragic chain of events changed his life forever.

As Trond revisits that summer of 1948, we are transported from the threat of Winter’s tightening grip to a sunlit idyll, abundant with sights and sounds and smells of verdant life. Along with his friend Jon, Trond spends the long days outside in the forest and by the river, from the morning’s first light only returning home to eat and sleep. It reads like an Eden, a paradise of freedom and innocence.

The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled book each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.

They climb a large Spruce so Jon can show Trond a tiny goldcrest nest he has found.

I had seen many nests but never such a tiny one, so light, so perfectly formed of moss and feathers.

Trond’s reverie is shattered when, in an outburst of sudden excruciating violence, Jon crushes the nest to a powder.

Jon’s face was a chalk-white mask with an open mouth, and from that mouth came sounds that made my blood run cold, I had never heard anything like it; throaty noises like an animal I had never seen and had no wish to see.

When Trond returns home his father tells him that the previous day, Jon’s younger brother had been killed in a tragic accident, shot right in the heart by his twin brother with the rifle that Jon had forgotten to unload and put away. While not as brutal as Jon’s rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, Trond’s experience of having to grow up is painful and confusing, and captures so well the feeling of blame that children can often feel over their parents’ relationship breakdown. The novel seems to centre around the Rubicon, with each character crossing borders with no way back. Another theme which permeates the novel is that of guilt – both the guilt of individuals for actions take or not taken, and the suggestion of a wider collective guilt of a nation that capitulated to Nazi rule during the War.

I can’t recommend Out Stealing Horses highly enough. I am still haunted by the luminous prose and have spent many hours brooded on Petterson’s heart-breaking study of the human condition. Life is full of pain, but “we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt”. After reading the final page the first thing I did was to go online and order more of the same (new titles for me, and a copy of this for my brother’s upcoming birthday). It is a melancholy masterpiece. Read it and weep.