This is my review of Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller.
Aged eighty-two, a recent widower considered to be showing signs of dementia, former US Marine and Jewish watch repairer Sheldon Horowitz quits New York to live in Oslo with Rhea, the granddaughter he brought up, and her patient Norwegian husband Lars. Sheldon is caught up in the brutal murder of a neighbour, and goes on the run to save her son from being seized and possibly harmed by his violent father, a Kosovan refugee.
Original and more than yet another Scandinavian crime thriller, this is also a reflection on life, of the kind that perhaps one can only make when approaching the end of it. For Sheldon, it is only rational for the elderly to become more preoccupied with the past when their earthly future is limited. Throughout life, "sanity is the thick soup of distraction we immerse ourselves in to keep from remembering that we're gonna bite it". It can be "overwhelming and painful" to harbour "memories accompanied by too much nostalgia". And much more in this vein.
Sheldon appears not so much senile as from his youth eccentric, over-intense, too imaginative for his own good. His sharp, wisecracking wit pastes over the cracks of deep anguish and regret. Haunted by the holocaust, too young to enlist for World War Two, his spell of combat in Korea – if it really happened – only creates further demons, guilt over strangers killed in cold blood, and the pressure he places on his own son Saul to fight in Vietnam brings further grief. Although this sounds gloomy, the writing is peppered with quirky humour, a vivid sense of place and perceptive portrayal of relationships.
Admittedly, the tone adopted is often that of a thoughtful man with a PhD in international relations i.e. the author, rather than a non-intellectual watch repairer. I spotted some small glitches in the plot and implausible police practice, which I cannot reveal. Some of the minor characters, such as the "baddies" or Kosovan immigrants are very negative stereotypes, even if largely seen through the jaundiced eyes of a police officer. I would like to think that, in writing about America as "our champion and our future", Europeans as weak and the Norwegians as naïve in their liberalism, Miller simply portrays the viewpoints of his characters rather than some personal, often Jewish-centred hobby horses. I agree that his meshing of a crime thriller with psychological literary fiction, comedy with unremitting violence, is sometimes a little uneven.
The end is disappointing – too rushed after the detailed development of most scenes. I do not mind ambiguous endings, but felt that the last paragraph might have been added for the wrong reasons – a point which I hope will be clear when you reach the conclusion.
I could not help making comparisons with the Swedish bestseller, "The hundred- year- old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared", to the detriment of the latter. "Norwegian by Night" is much better written, more profound and genuinely funny. The sometimes unexpected switches between reality and fantasy, such as Sheldon's conversations with pawnbroker Bill, or his accompanying of Saul in Vietnam, made me think of "Slaughterhouse Five" so I was interested to see the inclusion of Vonnegut in the author's acknowledgements.
Five stars for the development of Sheldon's character and the use of imagined scenes to convey some powerful images or telling insights.