There’s no denying that Per Petterson is a master storyteller. His spare prose squeezes every ounce of meaning from the chosen words in his novel, Out Stealing Horses. The Norwegian setting lends an other-worldliness to the story of an older man reassessing his past. In particular, the man reconstructs memories of his father. Partly from his own memories and partly from wartime stories about his father told by a friend, what emerges is a contradictory tale of a father’s wisdom and love and of a father’s neglect.
Lovely prose and haunting subject notwithstanding, I was nonplussed by Out Stealing Horses. I never developed a relationship with Trond, the man at the center of the story. It was difficult to keep my mind from wandering while reading about Trond. His self-imposed removal from the outside world, which provokes his contemplation of this youth, feels artificial. Despite ooccasional wispy hints of his earlier life, Trond never becomes real. Trond, isolated in a cabin in the Norwegian woods, seems more a vehicle for an interesting semi-story of wartime intrigue. Trond is just another anti-social old guy who likes to live alone and think about himself.
Out Stealing Horses made the New York Times Books of the Year list, so perhaps I missed something. Or, perhaps, certain authors of the male persuasion overestimate the charm of isolation and rumination. Without a compelling character, reading about Trond’s memories of his life is like sitting through a long dinner with a first date who does nothing but talk about himself from soup to nuts.
Still, Petterson’s writing is lovely and spare, and ultimately worth reading. I just don’t think the story is as universally appealing as some reviewers believe.