Saturday, October 3, 2009

A boy, his father, and horses

Per Petterson's fifth novel, Out Stealing Horses, has been one of the most acclaimed novels recently. It won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and Time Magazine Best Book of the Year, and was chosen as one of the best books by The New York Times Book Review. (Naturally, it never became a bestseller.) I feel that giving my two cents' worth about it would be a challenge.

In Out Stealing Horses, we meet Trond Sander, a 67-year-old Norwegian widower who has decided to live in an isolated cabin after the death of his wife. It is during this period of isolation that he remembers the pivotal events in his childhood involving his father. He recalls all the circumstances during one particular summer that would eventually lead to his father's abandoning them. He remembers in vivid detail how he and his friend Jon would "steal" horses and how his father formed a relationship with Jon's mother, which would prove disastrous to the Sander family.

Petterson's novel moves at a very slow but dramatic pace. While reading, I kept wondering where all the events were headed. The narrative shifts between the two significant periods in Trond's life. Also, even within each period, Petterson jumbles his chronology quite often, a technique which may be ineffective if done by a second-rate author. Petterson, however, propels his story so masterfully. And his ability to provide insights on his main character by showing us scenes from both Trond's childhood and his twilight years is a class of its own; Trond is one of the most introspective fictional character I've encountered recently.

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.

There's not much of a plot to speak of, however. But Petterson's use of language is a joy to read. Out Stealing Horses evokes a range of emotions from the reader -- from a "homey" sentiment to the more profound feelings of sadness and loss. The novel's end is particularly heartbreaking. Nevertheless, Out Stealing Horses is a very satisfying novel.

Read this book if:
  1. You're curious why people are slowly looking at Scandinavia as the next big thing in fiction.
  2. Lately you've been recalling childhood events and asking yourself "What if...? "
  3. You have a troublesome relationship with your father.


(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I loved this book, but as you pointed out it was really the great writing that made this one great. Great Review.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Diane! I think people would really like the book if they just give it a chance. The pace though will definitely put off some people.

Unknown said...

My book club read this one last year. We were split on it. Just over half of the group loved it, the rest did not. I did not, but I am looking at Scandinavia as the next best thing in fiction. Some wonderful detective fiction come from there these days.

BTW have you checke out Rob Around Books? He features a bookshelf of the week which you might enjoy. He's at

Peter S. said...

Hello, C.B. James! I think I'll take a look at Rob Around Books.

Anonymous said...

Scandinavia is the next big thing in fiction? Thanks for the tip. Do you think his pacing is a Scandinavian trait?

Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I see you're reading Woman in White. I love that book. Had sleepless nights because of it. How are you progressing so far? It's a bit slow at first but then you'll hit a point were you won't be able to put it down.

Peter S. said...

Hi, StephanieD! Thanks for dropping by again! I think the pacing is just Petterson's trait. Some Scandinavian novels, especially the thrillers, have very fast pacing.

@Something's Dishy: I'm still on page 50, and I'm liking it so far.

David Wagner said...

Nice review. I think I may check this one out. Thanks, you = The Man.

Unknown said...

Hi, David! You're welcome.