by Dea Brovig)
Norway is many things to many people who have never set foot on its shores. It is the Land of the Midnight Sun, of 1,000 fjords, where the northern lights dance across endless skies. It is also the home of Harry Hole and Hanne Wilhelmsen, where headless corpses litter the woods.
The popularity of Nordic noir has brought welcome attention to Scandinavian writing, but that is just one of several dishes on its literary smorgasbord. In Norway alone – a nation of readers, according to a recent report that found one in four Norwegians pick up a book on a typical day – there are scores of celebrated authors whose work falls outside the crime fiction genre, alighting somewhere between bestselling non-fiction and the clean, controlled prose I particularly love. The most affecting books, for me, capture something of the country's character in their attention to its nature, which has such bearing on its inhabitants. The community I describe in The Last Boat Home lives off the land and sea, so its surroundings, in all their beauty and ruggedness, are central to the story.
Here are 10 of my favourite Norwegian books available in English translation. Each is worthy of being pored over and admired.
1. Hunger by Knut Hamsun (translated by Sverre Lyngstad)
Norwegians have never forgiven Knut Hamsun his politics, but his work earned him the Nobel prize in literature in 1920 and established him as one of the country's most important authors. Published in 1890 and hailed by many as an early example of modernism, Hunger follows the trials of a destitute writer who wanders the streets of Kristiania, his thoughts shifting between lucidity and daydream as starvation gnaws away at his sanity. Uncomfortable but essential reading.
2. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born)
After suffering a personal tragedy, Trond retreats from the world, until a chance encounter sets him off into memory. In 1948, during a summer spent with his father in the countryside near the Swedish border, the 15-year-old Trond follows his friend into a field to steal horses, unaware of a shooting accident that has left a young boy dead. A tale of Norway during and after the second world war, of innocence lost and families destroyed, Petterson's portrayal of rural life is mesmerising, as is his pitch-perfect prose.
3. Dina's Book by Herbjørg Wassmo (translated by Nadia Christensen)
Dina's Book begins with a murder: a bleeding woman sends an injured man and his sledge careening off a cliff to certain death. On her return to the farm they shared as husband and wife, the muteness that saves her from accountability is attributed to shock. Dina is a hoot of a heroine, delightful and infuriating, in this epic novel set in the mid-19th century. She deals with the trauma of having caused her mother's death when she was a child by wreaking havoc on the lives of everyone around her.
4. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (translated by Elizabeth Rokkan)
A strange bond unites Siss and Unn, two young girls living in the frozen Norwegian countryside. Siss is outgoing, the leader of the pack, in every way unlike the shy newcomer Unn, and yet their friendship changes both indelibly. When Unn disappears, Siss is left to find a way of keeping her memory alive. A haunting story, full of ice and wind and poetry.
5. The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen (translated by Kenneth Steven)
The protagonist's parents name him Barnum after the circus impresario in the first of several misfortunes that will set his course through life. As a boy in Oslo in the 1960s, Barnum looks up to and fears his erratic half-brother, Fred, the product of their mother's rape on the day of Norway's liberation from Nazi troops at the end of the second world war. The Half Brother is a doorstopper whose every page bursts with colour in this portrayal of four generations of Barnum's remarkable family.
6. Child Wonder by Roy Jacobsen (translated by Don Bartlett)
Another story of half-siblings in the 60s, Child Wonder is told by Finn, who lives alone with his mother in a working-class suburb until a sister he has never met steps off the Grorud bus. Six-year-old Linda moves in with them while her own mother undergoes treatment for morphine addiction, just as Kristian the lodger takes up in the spare room with his TV. An endearing coming-of-age novel.
7. My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgård (translated by Don Bartlett)
In mid-January, a 37-year-old man was arrested in Malmö for entering a bookshop and setting fire to a copy of the fourth book in Knausgård's My Struggle oeuvre. When arrested, he explained to police that he did it because he felt Knausgård was the worst writer of all time. The My Struggle books have certainly proven to be incendiary in Knausgård's native Norway, where readers have questioned the morality of writing about real people, even as book sales have soared. Love him or loathe him (my feet are firmly planted in the "love" camp).
8. The Seducer by Jan Kjærstad (translated by Barbara Haveland)
"So how do the pieces of a life fit together? Or, to put it another way, do they fit together at all?" So asks the narrator of this sweeping story moments before its hero, the famed TV producer Jonas Wergeland, comes face to face with a polar bear in an outdoor privy in the middle of Greenland. Kjærstad's playful, circuitous tale begins with Jonas's discovery of his wife, Margrete, lying dead on their living-room floor, before jumping from event to adventure, making time along the way for Jonas to seduce the best and brightest of Norway's female citizens.
9. The Bookseller of Kabul by Åsne Seierstad (translated by Ingrid Christophersen)
In February 2002, after reporting on the offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan in the months following 9/11, the Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad moved into the home of Shah Muhammad Rais, the bookseller of the title (who appears under the pseudonym "Sultan Khan"), to learn firsthand about family life in Kabul. The book based on her observations was met with international acclaim, although the bookseller was none too pleased. In 2003, his second wife sued Seierstad for invasion of privacy in a Norwegian court. The case was settled in 2011 in Seierstad's favour, only to be filed anew with the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year.
10. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe (translated by Tor Ketil Solberg)
The protagonist of Naive. Super has been hailed as Norway's answer to Holden Caulfield. A 25-year-old university dropout, he is unable to pinpoint the cause of his depression, but he is in crisis nonetheless: he relieves his anxiety about the nature of time by sending faxes, making lists and pounding pegs into a board with a toy hammer. In the process, our hero poses some of life's big questions in ways that are by turns funny and touching.