Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
This is a bit of anomaly for this blog, where usually I focus on Nordic crime fiction in translation. Derek Miller is an American (though currently a resident of Oslo) and his novel is not exactly crime fiction (though there is a crime). It’s one of those books that defies classification. But I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Sheldon Horowitz is a New York Jew, a man who has repaired watches all his life but can’t quite keep time any longer. He’s in his eighties and his memory is . . . well, let’s say it’s inventive. He has reluctantly gone to live with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband in Oslo. The stories he tells about his experiences as a sniper in the Korean War don’t seem to match historical fact and his granddaughter thinks it’s a symptom of dementia. Either that, or he’s seeking attention with weirdly logical illogic – or possibly both.
One afternoon, after his granddaughter and her husband have left the house, Sheldon hears a commotion in the apartment upstairs. This is not unusual; the Balkan immigrants living upstairs have had their arguments before, but this time it’s different – more violent, more ominous. When he hears the woman come down the stairs, Shelden looks through the peephole and sees her hesitate on the landing, trapped between the rage of her husband and a suspicious car idling outside.
They did this with us, too, he thinks, looking through the peephole. And then the pity vanishes and is replaced by the indignation that lives just beneath the surface of his daily routines and quick retorts.
The Europeans. Almost all of them, at one time or another. They looked out their peepholes – their little fishy eyes staring out through bulging lenses, watching someone else’s flight – as their neighbors clutched their children to their chests while armed thugs chased them through buildings as though humanity itself was being extinguished. Behind the glass, some were afraid, some felt pity, others felt murderous and delighted.
All were safe because of what they were not. They were not, for example, Jews.
(There’s something wonderfully dry and disarming about that “for example” that somehow pulls the pin on the whole passage.) He opens the door and sees she has a child clinging to her. He motions them inside. When the man starts to break down the door, the woman pushes the boy toward him and he hides with him in a closet as the violence continues. When it grows quiet, he finds the woman dead; the suspicious car prowls by as he thinks about what to do. He’s afraid that if he goes to the authorities, they will think he’s a doddering old fool and hand the boy over to his father. So he takes it upon himself to protect the child, leaving behind a quote from Huckleberry Finn, setting off on a journey while the police and his granddaughter try to figure out what’s going on.
I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, though only after the fact. Both Atkinson and Miller are able to take some aspects of crime fiction – violence and the ripple effect is has on the people around it, the balance between causality and sheer randomness, the way that past and present are layered together in a single identity, the narrative skill to keep momentum as the story weaves back and forth in time, the clarity of characters fully imagined. Like Atkinson, Miller is funny and touching and irreverent and yet respectful of his characters and his readers. He considers age and the toll that grief and guilt can take on a life, on the cultural differences between Norway and New York, the stresses that immigration brings to Scandinavian countries that have both a sense of social duty and inexperience with cultural difference; he writes about masculinity and the scars inflicted by war and even touches on Norway’s treatment of Jews during the occupation and how much we erase from history.
Did I mention it’s incredibly funny? It is – in a gentle, sardonic, life-affirming way. And when it takes off at a gallop you can’t turn the pages fast enough. I suspect this will be on my top ten list for the year.
The publisher provided me with a copy of this book. I’m very glad I read it.