Monday, March 25, 2013

Review of Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller (Faber, 2013)

Following the death of his wife, eighty two year old Sheldon Horowitz has recently moved to Oslo to live with his grand-daughter and her husband.  After a stint as a marine in Korea, he's spent most of his life running a watch and clock repair shop, grieving over the death of his son in Vietnam, for which he blames himself, and looking over his shoulder for North Korean spies bent on exacting revenge for the soldiers he killed during the war.  Unable to speak the language and unsettled by the move and regrets in life, he seems increasingly disconnected from the world and his grand-daughter believes he might be starting to suffer from dementia.  When the upstairs neighbour appears on his apartment doorstep with her young son after a violent argument he takes them in.  But the respite is short lived.  Her attacker breaks down the door and kills the mother as Sheldon and the son hide in the closet.  Afraid the police might hand the boy over to the killer, the two fugitives slip away, intent on making their way to a summer cottage and sanctuary.  Not sharing a language, the old man and young boy sneak through the Norwegian landscape, drawing on Sheldon’s in-grained marine training, as the cops, family, and the mother’s killer search for them.  He might have failed his son, but Sheldon isn’t going to fail the small boy he’s christened ‘Paul’.

There’s a lot to like about Norwegian by Night, especially the wonderful lead character of Sheldon Horowitz.  He’s cranky, difficult, complex, indignant, lovable, principled and caring.  Derek Miller gives him great depth by charting a detailed back story and providing him with a difficult quest.  He surrounds him by other well realised characters and there are some very nice interchanges between them.  The plot is relatively straightforward in terms of Sheldon and the young boys journey, but Miller adds depth and layers through the use of remembrance and contextualisation, and it builds to a tense and dramatic climax.  Much of the story is a wonderful read, shifting the reader through a full spectrum of emotions.  However, the story drifts a little in the middle, providing back story material for other characters rather than keeping the focus more centrally on Sheldon and ‘Paul’, and Paul is the most underdeveloped character in the book (we never once get to see the world through his eyes, unlike several other characters).  I was fine with the resolution, but the ending for me was a little too sudden leaving a number of loose ends with regards to the fate of different characters beyond Sheldon.  Overall, this was a very good read and highly recommended to readers who like character-driven crime fiction.

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