From one of Norway’s most beloved authors comes “the best Norwegian novel ever”—an “absolutely moving” story of the beautiful but strained relationship between a mentally disabled man and his sister (Karl Ove Knausgard)
Set in the Norwegian countryside over the course of one summer, The Birds tells the story of forty-year-old Mattis, who has mental disabilities and lives in a small house near a lake with his sister Hege, who ekes out a modest living knitting sweaters. From time to time Hege encourages her brother to find work to ease their financial burdens, but Mattis’s attempts to work at the surrounding farms always end in failure and disgrace. Mattis is keenly aware of the distance between himself and the world around him, which often feels hostile; the villagers call him Simple Simon.
Profoundly sensitive to his surroundings, Mattis spends much of his time in the forest, reading its signs and symbols: A woodcock begins a daily flight over their house, a beautiful bird is waiting for him on the path one day when he returns from the store, and one afternoon lighting strikes one of the two withered aspen trees outside the house—trees known in the village as “Mattis-and-Hege.”
When Mattis decides to employ himself as a ferryman, the only passenger he manages to bring across the lake is a lumberjack, Jørgen. When Jørgen and Hege become lovers, Mattis finds he cannot adjust to this new situation. Wholly reliant on Hege and terrified of losing her, he clings to the familiar and does everything in his power to make Jørgen leave. Simultaneously, he struggles to find a place for himself in a world that does not seem to want him.
With spare simplicity, Vesaas’s straightforward prose subtly reveals Mattis’s perspective and readers will find themselves shifting irrevocably from observers of his experience to participants in it. Written by one of Norway’s most celebrated and beloved authors, The Birds is a deeply nuanced examination of identity and responsibility, with abundant narrative suspense and hauntingly beautiful writing besides.
With spare simplicity, Vesaas (The Ice Palace) tells the tale of Mattis, a mentally disabled man cared for by his lonely older sister, Hege. Their routine, isolated existence is interrupted when a lumberjack arrives at their lakeside cottage and falls in love with Hege, leaving Mattis fearful that he will lose his sister. The careful translation from the Norwegian underscores Vesaas's rare sensitivity in recording Mattis's often insightful view of his world. One episode at the grocer's illustrates his inside-out universe: After buying food, Mattis watches in horror as the grocer puts a packet of candy in his shopping bag: ``He was being given sweets like a child-although he knew about great things like shattered trees and lightning and omens of death.'' Mattis turns the situation around, telling the kindly shopkeeper, ``Well, I guess you can't really help it... being like you are, of course.'' It's a sardonic rejoinder to an earlier plaintive and unanswered query to a farmer's wife: ``Why are things the way they are?'' With only limited understanding of the unpredictable power of nature, Mattis nonetheless turns to the elements to discover the answer-with unsettling results. Vesaas's own secluded life in the Norwegian woods likely informed the novel's themes of isolation and natural forces. A literary gem.