A Christmas book, that feels like it could be one of the truncated novels encountered by the Reader of If on a winter’s night a traveller… It’s written in the first person, introspective and dreamy, set around a cluster of upheavals in the life of the protagonist and his country. This is a translation by Anne Born from the Norwegian, maintaining the clipped sentences and emotional restraint of the original language as it recounts Trond’s quiet retirement in the Norwegian countryside, a retreat that both evokes and is brought on by memories from his childhood and more recent traumas.
Trond is something of a city boy, born in Oslo, stuck there through the war with his mother and older sister while his father spends long periods in the countryside by the Swedish border, smuggling information — and more — back and forth. Later in life, Trond makes a good living in the city, wearing a suit, but he feels the allure of country living still: simple, physical, outdoor work, with an easily achievable sense of satisfaction to it. This is bound up to a summer after the war, when at 15 he joined his father on the border to do good, manly, outdoorsy things like mowing hay, chopping timber, and riding horses. When he loses his wife in a car accident, the elderly Trond retires to a remote country house, tasking himself with the physical labours of doing it up, teaching himself the skills to maintain the house and its land and relishing the loneliness of the life he has chosen, frustrated only by the idea of what others think they see in him or know of him when he visits the nearby town for supplies.
This retreat brings Trond memories from the summer of his youth, not least when his only neighbour up by the lake turns out to be the brother of his friend Jon, who disappeared that summer. It’s a convenient coincidence, and one that Trond compares to a twist in a Dickens novel. Lars, Jon’s brother, was once a twin, but shot his sibling in an accident that was partially Jon’s fault and led to his disappearance. It’s a strand of the story that feels superfluous compared to the enormous feeling generated by Trond’s memories of his father and their relationship, though perhaps we’re meant to see a contrast in the ways the two boys deal with loss: Jon flees, taking a hyper-masculine career on a merchant ship, and returning only to mercilessly turf his younger brother out of the family farm. Trond, despite his resentment, stays by his mother and sister, later remembering his wife and other women he has known, and finding that his lonely retreat from the world is not possible when his daughters will not let him abandon them in the way his father left him. Still, though the contrast between the elderly Lars and Trond’s handing of dogs, chainsaws and housekeeping is a nice echo of Trond and his father’s relationship, it felt unnecessary to the story, and not being a fan of Dickens myself, I wasn’t much interested in Trond’s brief, and to me, untethered, allusions to his stories — though the scene with his daughter, where they bonded over his storytelling was a touching one.
Rather, Trond’s father, and the striking, sun-beaten figure of Jon and Lars’ mother loom large in the book, as they do in their community on the border. The way in which Trond learns of how these two, through bravery and idealism, were brought together during the war, is doubly affecting, drawn through the lenses of a lonely old age and a bitter teenage yearning, tinged with jealousy. The evocation of the father/son relationship is done beautifully, along with Trond’s belated realisation that he never really got his father back from the war: but not, this time, because of loss and trauma, but because of love and an unexpected bond that arose in unique circumstances. It doesn’t much excuse the situation Trond’s mother is left in, of course, and there is little interest in psychologising her beyond maternal concern and passivity, but this is something that the book remains true to throughout: despite the sympathy accorded to the women in it, there is not much of an attempt to relate too closely to them, and they always remain separate, distinct from the male perspective through which we encounter them. It’s similar, to be fair, with the competent men of the outdoors: Trond’s father, with his likeable, calmly authoritative way, Lars, with his experienced approach to everyday physical tasks, and Franz, a follower, but a competent, wise one at that. Trond does not see how well he fits in with them, though he is proud of the achievements that show he does: freeing the timber trapped in the river, meticulously training Lyra and keeping his house in order.
It’s really a very Scandinavian little melodrama: there’s death, betrayal, tragedy and disappointment, but it’s all very muted, taken within an acute awareness of the sensations within one’s own body, and the colour of the sky and the fields. It’s as sensitive a portrayal as you could ask for of teenage paternal adoration and the period of a dawning awareness of the complexities and haphazard nature of human life. Combine this with the equally empathetic view of old age, chosen loneliness, and the constant hypocrisies between self-awareness and obliviousness, and you get a rich, rewarding character study, set in a beautiful, vivid countryside.