I thought I’d start the New Year with something a little different from my usual reading genres: a suspense novel. With the pleasure of a few days off over the long weekend to look forward to, it was the perfect time to go over my backlist of ‘books I want to read’. I’ve had Norwegian by Night on my Kindle for some time and a suspense novel involving an old man in a foreign country who kidnaps a young boy seemed like great holiday reading.
Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old New Yorker, now lives in Oslo with his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband, Lars. The death of Sheldon’s wife Mabel prompted Rhea to convince Sheldon to come live with her. He agrees, but not without some argument:
“What am I going to do there? I’m an American. I’m a Jew. I’m eighty-two. I’m a retired widower. A marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there that I’m unaware of?”
Rhea is concerned about Sheldon’s conviction that he was once a sniper in the US Marines, when Mabel said he was merely a filing clerk. Dementia is how Sheldon’s rants about being a sniper in Korea are explained away by both women.
Sheldon is a man whose mind is slowly dissolving the lines between past and present, and the boundaries of time and events. He sees and converses with dead friends, and even accompanies his dead son, Saul, into battle in Vietnam, a place he has never been. His mind may be playing tricks on him, but he still has plenty of sass and pluck. He’s a man who won’t give up his aged Penthouse coffee mug or aviator sunglasses, and his reasoning to explain his dementia made perfect sense to Lars, a man who respects good logic.
Through the turn of a good deed and helping a neighbour in distress, Sheldon finds himself hiding in a closet with a young boy who speaks no English, and a dead woman in living room. In an attempt to protect the little boy whose mother was viciously murdered, Sheldon absconds with the boy to keep him safe. They embark on an adventure across fjord and land, by boat and tractor, to get to Rhea and Lars’s summer house at Glåmlia. Despite his dementia, Sheldon manages to stay several steps ahead of both the Norwegian police and the bad guys.
I found the pace slow to begin with and it didn’t really pick up until about half way through the book, but then there was a definite shift in gears to high suspense and nail biting moments. A lot of back-story was given in the early section of the book, which sets up Sheldon’s life, and puts into the play his dementia.
Political aspects of asylum seekers from Serbia and Kosovo being granted immigration rights become a focal point for the tension in the book. Had Immigration’s rules and background research into applicants been more stringent, then there wouldn’t be a dead Serbian woman in Rhea’s living room, and Sheldon and the woman’s young son wouldn’t be on the run from members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.
There is a wry humour that emerges in places, which I really enjoyed. Sigrid Odergard, the Police Chief Inspector in charge of the investigation to find the murderer, and Sheldon and the boy, grills her team about the lack of evidence or leads:
“They’re all now staring at their shoes, which Sigrid reads to mean that her summary is accurate. There are seven of them. Seven droopy dwarfs. And she is Snow White, awake from her long sleep. And not a cup of coffee to be found. Just a room full of hairy midgets.”
Miller provides some delightful cultural insights into Norwegian behaviours and mannerisms:
“It is as though the Norwegian nation has learned how to rein in unbridled masculine power and bring it into social balance, burying its rough edges from public view, but permitting expansive and embracing moments of both intimacy and force.”
This outlook is later questioned by Sigrid, who reflects on her father’s habit of waking in the early morning and downing a shot of akevitt before doing the milking:
“The Oslo intellectual types don’t go in for that sort of manly approach to facing the cold and dark of the northern morning… maybe we’ve become a nation of pussies.”
Sheldon, desperate to save the boy, explains their dire situation to a group of young Norwegian hunters and asks if they’ll help get the boy to safety:
“Are you getting all of this? I can’t tell when your race is processing information and when it isn’t. It’s nothing but blank stares with you people. I need you to get this. Are you getting this or not?”
Miller writes with skill and he doesn’t tie all the loose ends up. Once the tension reaches its nail biting peak, there are a host of unanswered questions. It’s messy. I liked this effect and the impact of it. The story was over, but the ending prompted me to keep turning details over in my mind, searching for a resolution to my questions. Norwegian by Night is a damn good read and it was a great way to start the New Year.
Norwegian by Night (Scribe Publications 2012) ISBN 9781921942808 (e-book)
Note: In his acknowledgements, Miller writes that Norwegian by Night was first published in Norway in 2011, in Norwegian, although it was written in English. Since then it has undergone some revisions. Miller considers the English-language publication definitive.