One member of the Berwick group came up with a summary of this month’s choice, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, which I thought was an excellent observation. She said it was like reading a long, lyrical poem. What a lovely way to think of this novel, with its strong sense of atmosphere and its detailed, rich language. It’s all the more impressive considering it’s in translation – and of course the translator (Anne Born) is a poet.
There was a smaller than usual number at Doolally’s this month (partly due to holidays and work commitments – and partly, probably, due to a grey, drizzly evening!). But the discussion was as animated as ever. One person (who wasn’t able to attend) did say Out Stealing Horses was one of the best books he’d ever read and another member said it was her favourite of our choices so far. I think I’d go along with that.
For those of us who came to the novel knowing nothing about it, the title lacked promise (it suggested cowboys!). But most of us were genuinely captivated by the beauty of the writing. We were impressed by the way Petterson could conjure pictures of great, snowy landscapes and also intricately detailed images, such as the goldcrest’s nest. Only one reader wasn’t keen on the overall novel, but she too found the writing very skillful. It’s hard not to be moved by Petterson’s description of the peaceful evening “blue hour” (pg 100) or this heightened memory of a summer day:
“ …it smelt hot and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower.” (Pg 30).
The author said in a newspaper interview that he didn’t plot the story from the beginning, but had just started off with “the boy, the father and the summer.” This may account for the way the story itself was so unpredictable as well as tragic.
We talked about the fascinating relationship between Trond and his father and how we would have loved to know more about Trond’s relationship with the women in his life, from his mother and wives to his daughter. We wondered how much the contained character of Trond with his reserve and apparent inability to express emotion was a product of its time (ie, the 1940s, when the novel is set) or the Norwegian culture. One review said the book “lacked closure” and we chatted about this – but for most readers this was simply true to life. Unlike the central character’s favourite writer, Dickens, Petterson has left us never knowing what happened to Trond’s father.
Next month’s choice probably couldn’t be more different: we’re reading Northumberland writer Valerie Laws’ The Rotting Spot as part of New Writing North’s ‘Read Regional’ event. I’m really hoping it will appeal to the group member who made this great remark at the meeting: “I haven’t enjoyed most of the choices so far. But I get a perverse pleasure out of that. And I do think reading them is doing me good!”
We also briefly discussed how to celebrate summer in July (and yes, the long-term forecast is pretty good – we may actually get a summer!). For this meeting, rather than reading a set book, we’re thinking about members recommending some good reads for the holidays. The thought is to do this on Spittal beach – with the option of adjourning to my house around the corner if the weather is very “Berwick.” One brilliant idea (from Ann) is to bring food or drink that’s mentioned in a favourite book to form a very unusual picnic! (I do like this idea. Lashings of ginger beer, anyone?). But it’s a couple of months away so it is still open for discussion!
Finally – the discounted hardback copies of the choice for the end of June – Alice de Smith’s Welcome to Life – are now in my possession. I’ll bring them to the May session but if anyone wants theirs earlier, drop me an e-mail and we can liaise! If anyone forgot to ask me to get one for them, it’s not too late to have one posted out to you from New Writing North (just let me know).
Here’s to the lighter evenings and the faint possibility of reading the May book outdoors…!