Five Norwegian Novels I’ve Read

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.Cover image

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.

Cover imageAfter 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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34 thoughts on “Five Norwegian Novels I’ve Read”

    1. Thanks – I think I read that long ago in bookselling days. Your cruise sounds wonderful. Norway’s the ony Scandi country I’ve yet to visit, at least in real life. Hope to put that right some time.

  1. I love your five books posts, Susan – they always make me think both ‘oh good’ and ‘oh no’ because I know my TBR will inevitably be expanding. This one is no different!! I love the sound of all five books. I read Pettersen’s Out Stealing Horses ages ago and can clearly remember enjoying it.

  2. I recommend Maja Lunde’s series – The Climate Quartet. It is a climate fiction series, each book dealing with an important aspect of the climate change – for example, the first book The History of Bees is about the (potential) decreasing population of bees and what impact it would have on nature.

  3. The Gradual Disappearance of Jane sounds great, but our libraries don’t have it. However, I found ‘Love’ so have placed a hold on it for Novellas in November!

        1. Favourites have been Follow the Money, Mammon, Norskov, Stockholm Requiem, Rebecka Martisson, Thicker Than Water and The Team (all crime) + Borgen and Ride Upon the Storm. If you fancy a trip to Poland, I can also recommend The Border. All, except Borgen, were watched via Walter Presents. I also follow SquareEyedWorld on WordPress who are good for UK alerts.

  4. I’ve read quite a few of what you might call classic Scandi books, though mainly recently – having discovered Norvik Press, who have a fascinating backlist. I wouldn’t necessarily call them cheerful tho’….

    1. I’ve seen several of Norvik Press’ titles mentioned on Twitter. Thanks for reminding me. I think The Waiter is the only cheery Nordic title I’ve read and even that has its dark side.

  5. Thanks. I have read only a few Norwegian authors, the classics Knut Hamsung and the famous trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter. And I have devoured many books by Jostein Gaarder. They are so clever, so good

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