If your only acquaintance with Scandinavian novels is a cursory glance at the British bestseller lists, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire region turns out nothing but crime fiction. I’m here to tell you that there’s more to Scandi fiction than murder around every corner beginning with five Norwegian novels free of blood and gore, all linked to reviews on this blog.
Per Petterson is one of the best known Norwegian contemporary literary novelists outside his own country. I Refuse sees two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day. Through Jim and Tommy’s carefully layered narratives, Petterson meticulously reconstructs their friendship and their lives over the past thirty years. Show not tell is the order of the day – small details click into place and by the end of the novel you feel you know these men and the pain they have suffered. Melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity, I Refuse is a fine novel.
A description that could also be used for Merethe Lindstrøm’s quietly devastating Days in the History of Silence about Simon and Eva. A Jewish refugee, Simon and his immediate family spent much of the Second World War in hiding: the rest were lost to the camps. Now an old man, he has dementia although at times it seems as if he has escaped the feelings of guilt and loss which haunt him by gradually withdrawing, leaving Eva in ever-deepening silence. Eva also has a secret, kept from Simon for many years. Neither of them has shared their past with their three daughters. Eva’s narrative returns again and again to themes of memory, loss, the silence of withheld secrets and with them, understanding. The novel’s quiet, understated almost dispassionate tone sharpens Eva and Simon’s pain. Hardly an easy read, then, but one which provides a great deal to think about and to admire.
Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a slim yet powerful book which explores love, loss and the meaning of life all within fewer than 200 pages. The eponymous Jane is zipped up in a tent, alone in the middle of the Norwegian wilderness, contemplating what has brought her to this state. Jane has come to Norway intent on tracing her family history but things go horribly wrong prompting her to turn to the stranger she met on the plane from New York. As her story unfolds, flashing back and forth, we understand that something dreadful has happened to Jane, untethering her and shattering the wholeness she thought she’d achieved. Houm’s novel is expertly constructed. Written from Jane’s perspective, the slightly fragmented narrative circles the chance event which has blown apart her happy, successful life exposing its fragility.
My fourth choice is also a novella which explores themes of love, loss and the fragility of life. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the story of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.
After four novels which can hardly be described as cheery, I’m ending with Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter just to show that it’s not all doom and gloom in the chilly literary north. The Waiter sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, proud of his work at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of the grand Viennese cafes. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. The appearance of a young woman he dubs the Child Lady throws a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, one regular becomes disconcertingly familiar, another orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes including the Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment – I loved it.
Any Norwegian novels you’d like to recommend? Preferably something other than crime and possibly something cheerful.
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