One of the issues that came up while I was researching my recent post about bibliotherapy is how easy it is—almost inevitable—for readers to be submerged by the sheer number of books being published every year, and how a good bibliotherapist can actually help readers find their way to one good matchup after another.
The flip side of that, for me, is to wonder how talented young, or new, or still emerging writers can ever hope to get their work noticed by the reading public and not be completely eclipsed by established authors and the marketing apparatus of powerful publishing houses: a problem that only exists if they’ve already been graced with the miracle of finding a publisher.
What I’m saying is that looked at from either of these perspectives, the odds of discovering a great new book by a talented and still unknown writer seem about the same as being hit by lightning from Mercury.
Having book-loving friends helps, of course, and that’s how I came across Derek B. Miller’s first novel, Norwegian by Night. My friend Katie, who knows that I love a good mystery/thriller, handed it to my mum and said: “Give this to Michelle, I think she’ll love it.”
This is word of mouth and bibliotherapy all rolled into one (sometimes it really is that easy), and she was right!
Norwegian by Night is a delightful read that made me smile and laugh and care about and fret over its characters. It’s both intriguing and suspenseful, but it also snuck up on me with an ingenious story full of moral complexity, pathos and depth of feeling. It made me pensive and it made me want to read more, and faster. And it did it in under three hundred pages.
All that in a first novel.
Norwegian by Night begins in Tøyen, a borough of Oslo, Norway. Sheldon Horowitz, a cantankerous eighty-two-year-old widower and naturalized New Yorker (he was born in New England), has accepted his granddaughter Rhea’s insistent invitation to leave his American life behind and come live with her and her husband Lars.
Sheldon’s wife Mabel’s death is very recent and he appears to be showing the signs of disorientation and perhaps even dementia that can so easily follow the shock of separation and loss, and of complete dislocation.
Though Sheldon was very resistant to leaving New York, what sealed the deal was Rhea’s revelation, on the day of Mabel’s funeral, that she is pregnant and in her first trimester:
“ “ 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 and hour to pee. Is there a club there I’m unaware of?”
“I don’t want you to die alone.”
“For heaven’s sake, Rhea.”
“I’m pregnant. It’s very early, but it’s true.”
At this, on this day of days, Sheldon took her hand and touched it to his lips, closed his eyes, and tried to feel a new life in her pulse. “
Occurring in the first pages of the book, this scene is very touching and full of foreshadowing.
Though a generation lies between them, Rhea calls him Papa. Her own father, Sheldon and Mabel’s son Saul, a soldier, died in Vietnam shortly before her birth—but not until he had named her and seen to it that she would be cared for by her grandparents.
Sheldon is himself a veteran of the Korean War. Too young for World War II, Sheldon (Donny, to his brothers in arms) is a former Marine scout-sniper who passed himself off as an army clerk to Mabel and everyone else, and worked as a watch repairman for the rest of his civilian life.
With a move to the more upscale Frogner district of Oslo in the works for everyone, Sheldon is often left to his own devices, which includes getting used to Norwegian food; being one of only a thousand Jews in all of Norway; and listening to the people in the upstairs apartment: a woman, her young son, and the brute who may or may not actually live with them.
With so much time on his hands, and so much sadness to escape, Sheldon’s mind wanders back into his memories. And then, on one such a day, before going out to run errands with Lars, Rhea gently announces to Sheldon that she has miscarried.
For reasons that will emerge incrementally with skill and sensitivity through the rest of the novel, Sheldon is devastated by Rhea’s news.
It’s while alone in his private quarters at Lars’ and Rhea’s, and lost in a blend of melancholy reminiscences and daydreams, that Sheldon is jolted back to reality by the terrible drama unfolding upstairs. The screams of Senka, the young Serbian mother, are interrupted by violent crashes and thumps and the sounds of a man’s rage. And then, a terrible silence. Eventually, Senka and her young son find their way downstairs to Sheldon’s doorstep.
In the minutes that follow, events escalate and then silence returns. Sheldon and the small boy, whose name is Paul, have hidden in a closet in Sheldon’s apartment while Senka has sacrificed herself and faced the brutal monster who has stabbed and choked her to death.
Suddenly, in this moment of acute danger, all of the different folds of Sheldon’s identity reveal themselves as he realizes that his life and the boy’s are now in danger, and that they must flee. And so, Sheldon becomes Donny Horowitz, the Marine and scout-sniper, once again.
The only clues the two leave behind are traces of Paul’s urine in the closet where he hid, and Sheldon’s cryptic message to his daughter:
“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”
While Rhea and even the police—especially Chief Inspector Sigrid Ødegård and her right hand man Petter—at first see this cryptic message as an indication of Sheldon’s dementia, they eventually come to realize that it is, in fact, a pretty canny indicator that he and the boy are traveling up the Glomma river (on a stolen boat), like Jim and Huck Finn, to Lars’ family cottage in Glamlia.
The author does a brilliant job of telling a story that begins as a great escape, but gradually transforms itself into a far more complex and multilayered narrative.
This is a novel about Sheldon’s love for his dead son, Saul, and the transference of that love to Paul, another traumatized boy [surely, the fact that Paul the Apostle was originally named Saul of Tarsus influenced the author’s choice of names];
It’s about another father, Enver, the murderous Albanian Kosovar whose rape of Senka created Paul;
It’s about Enver’s single-minded quest to find his son for reasons that have as much to do with the spoils and wreckage of war as they do with blood ties.;
It’s about the terrible legacy of the silences between fathers and sons:
It’s about patriotism, and what it means to be a Jewish American after the Holocaust ;
It’s about the burdens of loss and the grief we carry;
And it’s about the workings of memory and its connection to identity.
In Norwegian by Night, the lives of Sheldon, Saul, Paul and Enver are laid one over the other like transparencies on an overhead projector, to tell a story in which the common elements are as visible as mountains or rivers and where the divergences between them leave a fearful impression of the toll of war and loss, which becomes greater with every succeeding generation.