Transcending genre, and blending genres, Norwegian by Night is partly a getaway/chase/escape thriller; partly a police-procedural; partly a social novel about family, displacement, guilt, grief and war, and, throughout, the poignant story of an old man haunted by his past and his search for redemption.
Sheldon Horowitz, 82 years old, has been reluctantly transplanted from New York to Oslo to live with his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Hans. Sheldon is eking out his old age trapped in a cycle of guilt, paranoia and grief. Outwardly eccentric and cantankerous, he was believed by his dead wife Mabel to be in the early stages of dementia. Rhea agrees, but Hans is not so sure. It worries Sheldon slightly but he resists the idea:
His memories were just becoming more vivid with age. Time was folding in a new way. Without a future, the mind just turned back in on itself. That’s not dementia. One might even say it’s the only rational response to the inevitable.
When a neighbour is murdered in the family’s apartment, Sheldon takes off with the victim’s young son to protect him from the killer. He leaves a note he hopes Rhea will understand, a quote from Huckleberry Finn:
I reckon I got to light out for the Territory, because they’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before. – River Rats of the 59th Parallel
Sheldon is haunted by the ghosts of people he killed in Korea, and by his son Saul’s death in Vietnam. He seeks atonement, while remaining paranoically certain the Koreans are still after him for revenge, even in Norway:
They’d been tracking him since 1952 – he was sure of it. You don’t kill twelve men named Kim from the top of a seawall at Inchon and think they’re going to forgive and forget … It took Sheldon years to learn how to spot them, feel their presence, evade them, deceive them.
An ex-sniper in the Korean War (though his family thought he was a clerk), Sheldon still has the skills and the mindset, if no longer much physical ability, to effect a successful escape. He dresses the traumatised and mute boy (‘Paul’) in a Viking costume and steals a police boat, then a tractor, after which they hitchhike across Norway to Hans’s remote summer house, trying to keep ahead of the killer and his cohort as well as the police; Sheldon trusts nobody. But everyone else is also heading for the summer house, and their journeys will converge there in a dramatic and explosive ending.
Sigrid Ødegård is the Police Chief Inspector in charge of the case. Her specialty is Organised Crime and it turns out that the killer (Envers) is involved in that, too, as well as being a Kosovar wanted for war crimes in Serbia. Envers’s associates are thugs and drug-runners, some of them reluctant, as well as a hitman bodyguard, ‘the Black’.
Some of the novel is from Rhea’s point of view as she worries about her grandfather and she and Hans join in the search for him. Her memories of being brought up by Sheldon and Mabel, and her deep love for the old man, provide an empathetic, if sceptical, counterpoint to Sheldon’s version of events. We get enough of Sigrid’s point of view, and of Envers’s, to make them both well-rounded and interesting characters as well. There is no sympathy to be found for Envers, although we do gain some insight into the terrible choices that have to be made by men like him caught up in ethnic wars.
But the story is mostly carried by Sheldon’s cranky and tortured point of view and that moves between the present exigencies of the getaway and flashbacks into his past, where time and reality are both ‘folding in a new way’. He talks to the ghost of his dead friend, Bill, and he revisits visions of Vietnam he had after his son was killed in action. Saul’s death weighs heavily on him, as he had brought him up to believe in patriotic wars. Sheldon knows he has little time left and so the hope of rescuing the child takes on a symbolic, as well as actual, necessity.
Norwegian by Night is beautifully written; the disparate points of view, the flashbacks and the convergences of the overall structure of the getaway/chase, blend into a completely satisfying story that reflects on the nature of history, war, Jewishness, the Holocaust, age, dementia, personal history and family love. The description of the Norwegian landscape the old man and the boy move through is evocative and vivid; dialogue is spare and laconic, and the novel is also very funny: I laughed out loud occasionally. For example, when Rhea is trying to describe her grandfather to Sigrid:
Rhea has spoken carefully and with love. She has spoken with some terror of what she is experiencing. She has spoken in waves of insight and humanity.
… Sigrid has indeed been listening carefully. So she answers with precision.
‘An eighty-two-year-old demented American sniper is allegedly being pursued by Korean assassins across Norway after fleeing a murder scene.’
Rhea furrows her eyebrows. ‘I don’t think I’d phrase it quite like that,’ she says.
‘What did I miss?’ Sigrid asks, looking at her notes.
‘Well … he’s Jewish.’
Derek B Miller is an expat Briton living in Norway. Norwegian by Night is a coup for Scribe, an Australian press, who discovered and published the novel ahead of overseas publishers.
Derek B Miller Norwegian by Night, Scribe, 2012, PB, 320pp, $32.95
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