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Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

August 12, 2010

This book is about a Swedish man, Trond Sander, who, now in his 60’s has recently moved to a remote cabin. He enjoys the simple tasks of his days—chopping wood, walking his dog, preparing his meals. He is alone, but not lonely, and seems perfectly content to live out his days this way. But then he meets his neighbor who, by unlikely coincidence, is the younger brother of a boyhood friend, and memories are knocked off the shelf and scattered about.

Through a series of flashbacks, Trond examines key moments of his life: a tragic event that befell his friend’s family, his own family’s tragedy, an adolescent attraction to his friend’s mother, his father’s relationship with the same woman, his father’s role in the resistance against the Nazis, and a fond memory of the day when he and his father crossed the border into Sweden on horseback. Most of the memories, in fact, cast light on his relationship with his father. Like his geographic detachment, he seems to survey these key moments in his life from afar, as if he is searching for some explanation for events that set the course of his life. In the present tense, he is an astute observer of the world around him; in the past he also observes, sometimes more than he participates. This detachment seems to mirror the relationship he had with his father, a likable but mysterious man who Trond holds in complicated regard—with a combination of awe and disappointment. His father’s presence in Trond’s memory brings with it heavy emotional weight but few answers. It is a markedly male detachment, where words are few and much goes unspoken.

The thing that struck me over and over about this book was its subtlety. Petterson gestures with such a light hand, but somehow manages to paint vivid scenes with very simple language. I loved that aspect of the book and highlighted several passages. That the English-language version is so poetic is a testament not just to Per Petterson, but also to Anne Born, who translated it from Swedish. All-around, a fantastic book.

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