‘Out Stealing Horses’ first came to my attention when it won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2007. I recognised the author’s name as the writer of ‘To Siberia’ and ‘In the Wake’, both of which are on my ‘to read’ list.
The story focuses on Trond, now aged 67 and living in a remote part of Norway. Here, hidden from the world and more importantly, from the people he has known, he takes time to reflect on one particular summer. In the summer of 1948, Trond spends time with his father in a cabin near the Swedish border. He is at that age where he is no longer a boy but not yet a man and so though he can sometimes perceive undercurrents in events around him, he does not yet fully understand them. The story moves between the man we know now who refuses to allow himself to lapse into typical old man habits such as ‘the egg stain on the shirt’, the sort of man that people pity and the no-longer-a-boy who doesn’t at first understand why his friend Jon has a sudden breakdown.
In one particular episode, Trond is asked by his father to clear the nettles behind their cabin and when he is found to have cut the grass but not the nettles, he is asked why. Trond says it will hurt. His father reaches into the nettles with bare hands and begins to rip them out. He tells Trond: ‘We decide for ourselves when it will hurt.’
At first, I assumed that this was typical macho speak and a momentary lapse of good characterisation but this is not a book about a boy growing up in the shadow of an overbearing ultra-masculine father, rather this episode will become the credo by which Trond shapes the last years of his life. Only in old age, when he feels he has nothing more to give anyone and no one dependent upon him, will Trond turn with courage to confront those events that tore apart two families in one fateful summer. Too late, Trond will realise that though his life has taken a different course, he is still his father’s son, sharing both the same strengths and weaknesses and belatedly, he realises that his father knew this years ago during the last summer they spent together.
In short, this is a fantastic book and though other reviewers may compare this novel to other coming-of-age novels by Scandinavian or even British writers, it is without doubt the best novel about a teenage boy becoming a man since Lynn Coady’s ‘The Saints of Big Harbour’.