Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Norway and Sweden: "Out Stealing Horses," Per Petterson and "Astrid & Veronika," Linda Olsson

Two countries, twinned on the same landmass. Two books, pendants in fact, to use a metaphor from the arts. One deals with a pair of men; the other with a pair of women. I didn't begin with the intent to treat them together, but the books fell out that way. Astrid & Veronika appeared on the clearance shelf at Half Price Books a few months ago; and Out Stealing Horses was the Per Petterson title available in our public library. Sometimes happenstance leads to neat discoveries. Each book evokes a sense of place extremely vividly and tells the age-old tale of adjusting to the difficult circumstances of life. Each leaves the reader with some sense, but not a complete sense, of closure.

Both of these works have a frame story. Petterson's 2007 work is a classic "coming of age" story set within the larger frame of a voyage/quest as an 67-year old man seeks peace in the forest he hasn't known since boyhood. I could argue that it is the better book because it is more complex. Linda Olsson's 2005 novel, her first, is a "coming to terms" story set within a larger frame of humankind's mutual inter-connectedness, even when we want to deny that we are, in fact, linked with other people. In this book, a woman near 80 reveals her life's secrets to her new, much younger neighbor, and each shares tales of tremendous loss.

In each book, one character moves to a new home intentionally isolated from others, except for one other person across the way or down the road. Each pair of houses--one an hour's drive or so from Oslo (Norway), the other outside of Stockholm (Sweden)--sits on the edge of a forest, near a lake, within a short drive of a village with a general store/gossip center.

Isolation is a plot necessity. Without it Trond, the narrator of Horses, would not have spoken with his nearest neighbor, Lars, and Astrid, the older woman, would not have checked on Veronkia after not seeing her for a few days. By connecting with the other, each unleashes the memories and stories that form a substantial portion of the books.

Each book uses a similar structure, alternating between past and present. Each tells stories from the past from different people's viewpoints. We hear Trond's boyhood neighbor Franz tell the 15-year old Trond some truths about his father. We hear what Veronika's father said to her when they last met. We infer from her words how Astrid coped with her father's mis-use of her when she was a girl. Even Lars, almost mute in Trond's life, has a short narrative about his existence from age 10 to 20, being responsible for the family farm in his older brother's absence.

Descriptions of forest, snow, light, and even the scent of the area abound in both works.

In Horses, which begins in November with Trond meeting his neighbor:

"There had been days and nights of rain and wind and incessant roaring in the pines and the spruce, but now there was absolute stillness in the forest, not a shadow moving, and we stood still, my neighbour and I, staring into the dark." (p. 8)

In A&V, which begins with Veronika's arrival in March, under dark skies:

"She lay still, watching the shade of the ceiling change, her ears alert. The sounds of darkness were faint but familiar. She could hear the snow adjusting to the slowly rising temperature, the wind preparing to pick up, the rustling of small bodies scuttling across the hard crust of snow that had thawed and frozen over again." (p. 11)

Then later that year, in Sweden:

"Summer arrived abruptly...The birch trees went from sheet pale purple through shy green to full summer exuberance in a few days, and the delicate bluebells covered the meadows with a quivering brush of purple. The bird cherry trees blossomed and filled the air with perfume over a few intense days, then the petals fell like snow." (p. 88)

In one of his memories, Trond recounts a horse camping trip he made with his father in the summer of 1948:

"...we made up branches and twigs into two soft beds under the cliff, and it smelled good and strong...We fetched our blankets and lit a bonfire...and sat on each side of the flames to eat...we turned the horses loose. From where we sat by the fire we could only just hear them moving around on the soft forest floor...but we could not see them clearly for it was August now and the evenings were darker." (p. 212-213)

In their own late summer in this century, Astrid and Veronika set off for lingon berries:

"The dark forest gradually thinned as they reached higher ground. Eventually it gave way to tall pines, seemingly nourished only the the white moss that covered their roots. The trunks stretched straight and branchless toward the sky and the air was filled with the smell of resin and pine needles. The moss was dotted with small red berries and they began to pick. The berries grew in clusters...Veronika focused on her task, the sun warm on her back now. (p. 215)

I learned from these books that if you don't live in a city, it is imperative to know how to cook food and possibly heat your home with a wood stove, how to chop the wood and stack it correctly, and how to read weather signs for rain or snow. Living in one's mind also seems important, as these characters face potential days and nights of isolation, and their lives are joyous, at least sometimes, because of their memories of their own lives and of the stories of others they carry with them.

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