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BookBrowse Reviews Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

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Out Stealing Horses

A Novel

by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson X
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 256 pages

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Subtle prose and profound vision combine in an unforgettable novel - an achingly good read

A bestseller in Norway and Germany and the winner of the Irish IMPAC award*, Out Stealing Horses was published in the USA in hardcover last year, and in paperback a couple of weeks ago. Set in the East of Norway on the border of Sweden (map of Norway), the story opens in 1999 with 67-year-old Trond Sanders recently settled into a broken-down cabin a long way from any city, where he plans to live out his days. Then, a meeting with his only neighbor, who he believes he recognizes from long ago, triggers memories of the fateful July of 1948, when he was 15 years-old and spent the summer with his father in a cabin not dissimilar to the one in which he now lives. He remembers the long summer days spent adventuring with a neighboring boy, Jon and, in particular, he recollects the day when he and Jon went "out stealing horses".

The reader anticipates that the tragedy that has shaped Trond's life will be connected with going "out stealing horses" but it transpires that the joy-riding of a couple of steeds belonging to the local farmer is uneventful. Unbeknown to Trond and the reader, the tragedy has already taken place earlier at Jon's home.

Having peeled back two layers of the onion, the reader settles back anticipating that the small misstep that has led to the greater tragedy will be the event that will shape the rest of story, but Petterson is far from done. Instead, we slowly peel back more and more layers to reveal the complex relationship between Jon and Trond's family that started during World War II, and the tiny missteps that led inexorably to tragic consequences.

Many authors ladle out plot in great splashy dollops, Per Peterson measures his with quiet coffee spoons. What at first looks to be a classic coming-of-age story set in Norway, slowly reveals itself to be something more. What that something is is not entirely spelled out, which makes Out Stealing Horses a literary treat for readers who prefer not to be spoon-fed every detail, and instead enjoy filling in some of the gaps for themselves.

*The IMPAC award is administered by Dublin City Public Libraries with nominations from libraries around the world. The award carries a 100,000-euro first prize (~US $130,000). IMPAC is a Florida based company that claims to be the world's leading specialists in management productivity improvement. Out Stealing Horses won against a shortlist consisting of Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry and The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs.

Per Petterson was born in Oslo to a working-class family. He has worked as a manual laborer, is trained as a librarian, spent twelve years as a bookseller, and was a translator and literary critic before becoming a full-time writer. Out Stealing Horses is translated from the Norwegian by poet, critic and historian, Anne Born, who has translated many works from the principal Scandinavian languages into English, including two previous novels by Petterson: To Siberia, set in a small Danish town during WWII, and In the Wake, which chronicles the breakdown of a man six years after his parents and brother were killed in a ferry accident (modeled after the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia when 852 of the 989 people on board were drowned, including Petterson's parents and siblings).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in July 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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