If you’re in the middle of preparations for a holiday to Norway, then we’d like to offer our suggestions for some pre-trip reading. Each of these books is firmly grounded in a strong sense of place, making them essential reading before you go.
#1 The Snowman
Fans of Nesbø’s Harry Hole will no doubt be excited at the prospect of this latest outing reaching the big screens this October. In the meantime, his popular novel takes us to Oslo in late autumn, just as the first snow has fallen. In an spine-tingling thriller that is guaranteed to have you gripped, young Jonas awakes to find a snowman in the yard. It is wearing his mother’s scarf, but she has inexplicably disappeared. Of course, that’s not all. What follows is a masterful and suspense-laden journey that will keep you rapt from the first page to the last.
#2 The Water's Edge
Interestingly, our next writer has been quoted as saying she’s not a great crime writer, though Karin Fossum has been endorsed by many a fellow author as well as most book critics. But she writes powerfully about the countryside north of Oslo, the setting for her Inspector Konrad Sejer series. In this, the eighth book, the landscape provides a tranquil contrast to the horror of the crime which is revealed. In Fossum’s melancholy world, insular communities house those who aren’t what they seem. In The Water’s Edge, she writes: “...then came April and suddenly it turned warm. People poured out of their houses lacking in everything: light, heat and fresh air.”
#3 Out Stealing Horses
If you’ve yet to discover the delights of reading one of Per Petterson’s works, then we’d suggest you begin with Out Stealing Horses. Even before the first chapter is done, the author has painted such a vivid picture of the splendid isolation of the Norwegian countryside that you feel you know it as intimately as if you live there. But the rural idyll he depicts is shattered when the central character receives a visitor from his past, dredging up memories of the Nazi occupation of Norway. This startling contrast between the calm and the storm makes it easy to see why the book made such an impact when it was first published.
#4 Three in Norway by Two of Them
James Arthur Lees and Walter J. Clutterbuck
Despite the fact that it was written over a century ago, this book’s dry wit and infectious sense of fun make this as entertaining a read as any contemporary travelogue. The three very English friends cart their luggage, including a much-admired canoe, by boat and train to the mountains of Jotunheimen. There, they embark upon a back to nature adventure which sees them get to grips with fishing, camping and even hanging out with reindeer. The deadpan style makes it an enjoyable read, though you won’t find it littered with any Nordic vocabulary. Viewing such practices only as proof “you really have been there”, they hold: “We have little doubt that the English language will provide an equivalent, which shall be inserted for the benefit of the uninitiated”.
#5 Growth of the Soil
Another classic, it’s worth making the effort to get hold of a copy of this epic in its centenary year. Growth of the Soil is a story which makes you question why you need the trappings of modern life when a basic existence can offer so much in terms of freedom and spiritual fulfilment. That’s not to say life wasn’t hard for homesteaders such as these at the turn of the last century: “Isak worked on the land until the frost... When the ground hardened, he left his field work and became a woodman, felling and cutting up great quantities of logs.” This tale, rich in description and so evocative of the landscape in which its rooted, is a must-read for anyone who’s planning a trip to the more remote parts of modern Norway.
#6 The Ice Palace
Our final pick is Tarjei Vesaas’ masterpiece, The Ice Palace. Its simplicity and brevity is deceptive. Siss is just eleven in 1960s Norway when she meets the troubled Unn, a girl from school. When Unn plays truant and visits the Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall, she’s never seen again. But Siss had made a promise never to forget her, making her own solitary pilgrimage to the Ice Palace. The intense imagery conjured up by the talented Vesaas allows the landscape to shine alongside a compelling narrative. Finally, spring comes, and the icy waterfall melts: "Now the palace, with all its secrets, goes into the waterfall. There is a violent struggle and then it has gone." This is a tale which will have you pondering its deeper meaning long after you’ve read the final page.