Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and translated by Anne Born prompted a split decision from my book club–four members loved it, three did not. This is not typical for us. It’s rare that we all love or all hate the same book, but the vote is usually closer to five-two than it is to four-three.
Out Stealing Horses is a complicated story. It opens with the narrator as an “old man,” recently widowed, who has left his urban life for a cabin in rural Finland. His new life, that of a loner in the woods, gives him time to look back on his life which brings on a succession of flashbacks to various points in his youth as he tries to come to grips with the father who abandoned him to live with another woman and her young son.
I admit that I was not in the “loved it” camp, so instead of writing a more traditional review I’m just going to focus on three scenes in the novel that I can honestly say I loved since there is much to admire in Out Stealing Horses. I don’t think any of these will be spoilers–I’m leaving quite a bit out–but if you’re planning on reading the novel soon and like to be completely surprised, you may want to skip to the giveaway at the end of this post.
The first scene comes early in the novel and is the most harrowing part of the narrative. The narrator, Trond goes “out stealing horses” with his friend Jon who lives on the neighboring farm. The two young friends spend the afternoon basically borrowing horses from other farmers, riding them for a while and then returning them to their corrals. Afterwards the boys each go home so the narrator finds out what happened only later. Jon was supposed to watch his two younger brothers, 10-year-old twins Lars and Od, but he left the house unattended and went for a swim in the nearby creek. A shot is heard and Jon’s father races into the house from the fields. Jon cannot move. He waits in the tall grass outside the house. He knows he forgot to empty the cartridge from his rifle which he hung in the hallway and which his little brothers are prone to play with, pretending to be him. The father has to leave almost immediately to pick up his wife at the train station; she is returning from a visit to a relative. He cannot bring himself to tell her what has happened, so she enters the house unaware that one of her sons has been killed.
The second scene takes place shortly afterwards. Trond’s father, who is often away from home for long periods of time, has decided to help Jon’s father cut down a stand of timber. The two men begin cutting and stacking young trees next to the river. Without realizing it they begin to compete with each other to see who can build the highest stack of timber. Their wives and children are all there, the sons helping their fathers while the wives watch the scene. It’s here that it became clear to me, while the two men silently stack wood unable to look each other in the eye, that there was something going on between Trond’s father and Jon’s mother, that their silent antipathy was not just a product of one man’s grief for a lost son. Much more is at stake here. It’s a wonderfully written scene, full of understated tension.
The final scene takes place several years later. Trond’s father has left his family for good, but before going he sold one final stand of timber and left the proceeds in a bank across the border in Sweden. Trond and his mother travel to the city to get the money only to find that it’s just 150 kroner and that they cannot take currency back into Finland. So his mother decides to take him to a tailor and buy him a new suit, his first one, which uses up most of the money. The two of them spend a single day, happily touring the city, looking very smart in their new clothes.
Out Stealing Horses goes back and forth in time, not without causing some confusion, and it tends to ask more questions than it answers. These are both double-edged swords for a novel, some people like this sort of thing, some do not. But there are many passages in Mr. Petterson’s novel where the writing reaches lyrical heights that are seldom seen. I was very impressed by the writing more than a few times, especially considering that I read the novel in translation. There are many rewards to be found in Out Stealing Horses, one of which is a book club discussion that stayed on the book for close to an hour–that’s very good for my book club.
Since I first publishedthis review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009, I have pretty much forgotten everything about it except that I did not like it. That’s how it goes sometimes.