Like last week’s In the Woods, this marvelous novel selected by one of my book clubs brings together past and present. At sixty-seven, Trond Sander has moved to a small cabin in the woods to create a new life for himself, a simple life of doing chores, restoring the cabin, chopping wood for the winter. Most of all, what he wants is a life alone, just him and the dog he has adopted from an animal shelter, a life where he is able to think. Since the death of his wife in a terrible car accident three years previously, Trond has felt increasingly unable to go on with his prosperous life in Oslo. He does not even tell his two daughters where he is going.
But once alone, what he finds himself thinking about is the summer of 1948, when he was fifteen, when he and his father went off to another cabin, in other woods, beside a loop of river that comes in from Sweden and returns to it. Petterson moves back and forth between the two stories, subtly mirroring events and experiences. He draws in, as well, the German occupation which ended in 1945, and the absences of Trond’s father during the war. Yet I was always certain of which time period we were in; a member of my book club pointed out that with each shift, Petterson grounds us right away with something unique to that time period, such as the dog in the present day.
The writing is just amazing: clear and simple sentences that resound with emotion. Petterson worked closely with the translator, Anne Born, so I assume the prose is close to the original. He claims not to plan his books, but just to start and see where the writing takes him. If that is true, then he is either a genius or does a thorough and excellent job of revising, because the way this book is structured is so delicate and yet completely sound. The mirroring of the two stories is reflected in other doublings: obvious ones like the two sets of twins, the two encounters with lorries on mountain roads, the two times Trond falls out of bed; and more subtle ones such as Trond’s children waiting for him to return from his business travels just as he waited for his father to return from his mysterious absences during the war. Yet it is so lightly done, or perhaps I was so caught up in the story, that I was not even aware of things clicking into place. I only saw them when I went back and reread the book, which I did immediately, something I do only with the rare book that leaves me gasping.
Rereading also helped me see the seemingly unimportant details that later coalesce around an event or image and take on layers of meaning. There is Sweden, for example, that other country where Trond is certain everything will look the same but feel entirely different. And while Petterson does paraphrase Hartley’s famous opening lines, we are there well before him. Sometimes we must examine the past before we recognise the small, almost imperceptible shifts that change everything: the moment of crossing into adulthood or the moment you know you must, as Rilke said, change your life.
I don’t want to give away the plot. This story needs to unfold in its own time. This is a story about what a son may learn from his father, about communicating in this so reticent culture, about what it means to be a man. It’s also a story about coming back, a theme that resonates with me. Trond’s father returns from the war, from the danger and excitement, where he risked everything for the greater good. He returns to his wife and two children, to their second-floor flat, just as Norway itself must find a way to return to itself after the long years of German occupation. How do you come back from war and pick up your life again? Or from a terrible loss, such as the death of Trond’s wife? Perhaps you run off to sea, or yell and sing like the boaters in Oslo on the night of liberation, or perhaps you go off to a cabin in the woods and sit by the river and think.