No doubt due to the huge snowstorm we got in Toronto last Sunday, I've felt the sudden urge to immerse myself in fictional snow-bound worlds. These two gems made a lovely pairing, not just for the setting they shared - northern Norway - but for a similarity in theme; the irresistible pull of the landscape in confronting and finally dealing with the past. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born, won the IMPAC award and has received wonderful reviews, landing on a number of "best books of 2007" lists. It really deserves all the accolades - the writing is just exquisite and the story is very touching. Trond is a 67 year old man who has always considered himself lucky but who has now decided to spend the rest of his life living alone in a cabin in the woods. He has a strange and silent neighbour named Lars, a man he hasn't seen for decades. The story moves between Trond's acceptance of his new life and his memories of the summer he was fifteen and also staying in a cabin with his father. A tragic accident that befalls Lars's family has longterm effects for Trond as well, precipitating an important decision by his father who he will never see again after that summer. One piece of advice his father passes on to him is, "you decide for yourself when it will hurt" and that fairly sums up the theme of this novel; subconsciously or not, we pick and choose events from our past and either brood or discard. But the really deep pain doesn't go away until it's confronted.
In Peter Stamm's Unformed Landscape, translated by Michael Hofmann, Kathrine is a young woman who has never been south of the Arctic Circle. She works as a customs officer checking Russian trawlers and has drifted into two bad marriages. When she discovers that her husband has habitually lied to her about his life, she leaves her small town and travels to France in search of a man she's only casually met and communicated with by e-mail. Eventually, however, she needs to return home to confront her husband and make changes to her life. What I loved about these two books was the infusion of the landscape - as bleak as it is - into the story. The play of stark light and the long hours of darkness. The quiet whiteness of the snow that can be both physically dangerous but also emotionally empowering in its freedom of possibilities. Both novels are also infused with a curiosity and fear of lives lived in other places. The river that runs beside Trond's childhood cabin also meanders into Sweden, the country in the background of his father's wartime activities and indeed the site of one of the last key episodes of the book. Kathrine visits a number of great European cities - Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm - but when she goes to an internet cafe, it's to look up her village's website, where a webcam is constantly set up on the town square, even though there's nothing new to see. These two novels challenge the claims that one must travel to "find oneself", arguing instead that the familiar landscapes of home and childhood are where one grapples with one's own interior truths. Beautiful, introspective works.