The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators)
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|The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators)|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A brilliant look at a struggling small family in a rural setting, where its age, setting and derivation are but a few of the qualities you cannot quite pinpoint.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 250||Date: April 2016|
|Publisher: Archipelago Books|
We're somewhere in rural Scandinavia, on the shores of a large lake, but in a community relying on the farmland that is scattered in amongst the woods. Our chief concerns are brother and sister – Mattis and Hege. He, Mattis, is what the other villagers call 'simple' – sure, he knows a few things about life, and what makes a clever person and what makes a well-turned phrase, and how to talk to girls and when to not stare at them, but he is definitely not quite as the others would wish. Those others include his sister, who is seeing her life waste away in listening to his chatter, knitting jumpers to make ends meet, and regretting in her own small way what has got her to middle-age in this situation. But from this galling introduction, you should take away the bigger picture – even if there is no way out, the life in this countryside is brilliantly conveyed, full of sun as well as shade, of labour and of idleness, and wit and charm as much as hardship. I defy you to read this and think this corner of Scandinavia bleak.
What's more, beyond the character names, you might not even be in Scandinavia. You could put this anywhere, in any isolated bundle of homesteads. I put this down to the writing, which is so visual, even when it is severely concentrated as it is on Mattis' mindset and world-view. What's more, you can read this in complete ignorance that this is a lost classic written in the 1950s. There is nothing to pin this down as regards the time-line – the lake's powerboats and tourists are mentioned here and there, but nothing dates the piece whatsoever. I put this down, again, to the style, which is very snappy and readable – quite heavy on dialogue, using a nice rhythm of paragraphs where none are too short but none too long.
This is the kind of book where you would expect a modernist approach – the dense look inside the mind of a – well, I was going to call him dense too, but that's crude. Certainly you could imagine a much lesser volume along these lines, where the concentration of Mattis' concerns made page-and-page-long paragraphs. Mattis is sure he can hear a woodcock fly over the house as a routine – and woodcocks never change their routine. Mattis is convinced that a tree – one of a pair the villagers have privately named after him and his sister, even if perhaps nobody knows which is which – is heralding a major change when it gets struck by a lightning strike. Mattis, even though he seems to be known to all and sundry about, tries to work in a turnip field, and the thoughts we experience during his day's labours are fascinating, never drear or bleakly presented.
You must thank the translators too for their part in keeping this novel's novel clarity. Sometimes we drip into voices Mattis hears in his head, without speech-marks, but you never get lost in what is what. The plotting has that quality where it's partly fully predictable, and partly eternally surprising, but never really gives you pause to work out which it's being at any particular time. And the humanity of the piece, in bringing this couple of adults to our attention, both with their flaws and their perfections, is one more element that makes it wholly readable and enjoyable. I'm aware that my review has put together a lot of opposites, which might suggest doubt. If anything I do this to show how much of this book has a sort of ephemeral quality that is hard to define and pin down. What is inescapable, however, is how much I enjoyed it. I really was surprised by its qualities.
You might enjoy A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside for more people in rural Norway who don't seem to be quite how others think they should.
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You can read more book reviews or buy The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators) at Amazon.com.
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