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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

New (Paperback) Release: THE BIRDS by Tarjei Vesaas

3.5 Stars
This book was originally published in Norway in 1957; now an English paperback version is being released.

This is the story of Mattis, a mentally challenged man in his late 30s, known as Simple Simon by the people in the small village in which he resides.  He lives with his sister Hege who looks after him.  Their quiet lives change when a lumberjack arrives at their lakeside cottage, and Mattis becomes increasingly concerned about his future.

This is not a book for lovers of action/adventure novels because this is not a plot novel.  This is a portrait of man who doesn’t fit into the world, but wants to.  He is very much aware of how he is different from other people; he wants to be different in the three ways that matter to him:  beauty, wisdom, and strength.  He has difficult doing even menial labour and suffers anguish because of his ineptitude.   He clings to the familiar, being afraid of change, but he wants to find a role for himself which he does for a short time when he becomes a ferryman. 

It is unclear what Mattis’s disability is, but it seems to be autism.  He struggles to express himself, he has obsessions which occupy his thoughts, and he becomes easily frustrated.  He lacks connections to people, but he is attuned to the natural world.  He sees meaning in events in that world, events like the flight of a woodcock and a lightning strike. 

I found that the book did not maintain my interest because there is so little suspense.  It is true that Mattis is not always able to accurately interpret people’s actions and so there is always the risk of his doing something inappropriate.  But since he is middle-aged, he has learned how to behave in a socially acceptable way.  And his fear of mockery ensures that he usually reacts and speaks cautiously.  I did not have the same concerns as I did when reading Of Mice and Men.

The novel’s strength is its psychological insight.  The reader sees Mattis’ fears, loneliness, unhappiness, and his sense of childlike wonder.  Mattis’s thoughts may be muddled and he may have difficulty communicating them, but his emotions become very clear.  And all of this is accomplished in very sparse, stark prose. 

It is also Hege who receives the reader’s sympathy.  Her life is almost unbearably lonely as she struggles to look after her brother.  She is “worn out and miserable” and though she is only 40, her hair is turning grey.  At one point, she screams in frustration:  “’Leave me in peace, please!  I can’t go on any longer if you don’t –‘” 

Apparently there is a Polish film entitled Matthew’s Days which is based on this novel.  I recommend the novel, but readers should be forewarned that sadness pervades the book.

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.