What do you think of when you think of Norway? A land of fjords slicing into its frayed coastline, one of the longest in the world; cosy fires, endless summers, and snow beneath the northern lights. Norway is a country of just five million people, but it is huge, and diverse in dialects and industries. Rightly known for its outstanding natural beauty, books by Norwegian authors tend to invoke “the simple life” and being at home in wild surroundings.
In literary terms, Norway punches far above its weight, producing many authors who have achieved international success – to name only three, Henrik Ibsen in the 19th century, Knut Hamsun in the 20th, and Karl Ove Knausgaard in the 21st. Then there’s the Norwegian diaspora, like Siri Hustvedt, author of the masterpiece What I Loved (2003) and other beautiful novels. Norway also has a lively literary scene, with literature houses in major cities and “book towns” like Fjærland. Without further ado, here are five of my favourite books about Norway.
- Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean by Morten Strøksnes (2015)
This is one of my favourite reading experiences in recent years. It chronicles how, year after the year, the author and his old friend meet in the famously beautiful Lofoten Islands in the north of Norway. Their mission? As the title suggests, they are trying to catch a shark – a Greenland shark, in fact, one of the longest-living vertebrates that can survive for five centuries or more in the deep northern seas. As well as this intriguing aim, one that will light up the antennae of any ocean-lover, it is Strøksnes’ playful, self-deprecating tone and wadings into Norwegian fishing trivia that really make the book sing. I found myself yearning to visit this region and to learn more about the cod industry that is the mainstay of the Lofoten economy. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether they catch the shark or not.
- A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside (2012)
In Norwegian folklore, a huldra isa forest spirit who appears as an irresistibly beautiful girl, come to lure men and boys into her world. She is the subject – or the obsession – at the heart of John Burnside’s novel. Set in Kvaløya, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle where the relentless dark in winter and midnight sun in high summer drive inhabitants to hallucinations and depression, this haunting book is the right read for anyone drawn to isolated characters, fairy tales, and the extreme conditions of the far north.
- Silence: in an Age of Noise by Erling Kagge (2017)
Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, 57, has spent his life going to extreme places: he has been to both the North and the South Poles, climbed Everest and many other peaks, and scaled New York City high-rises. As well as being a world class explorer, he’s a very good writer, and Silence explores its title theme as an antidote to the distractions of daily life. This isn’t a self-help book, but is almost a mini-expedition of its own, offering philosophical quotes, musings on modern life, and anecdotes from his faraway travels and hikes back in Norway. The latter, especially, is a real insight into the active culture of Norway, where a common phrase is “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. Just 160 pages long, it was deliberately designed to be read in a day or two. Reading it, you feel yourself absorbing its message and appreciating silence more actively.
- Two Sisters by Åsne Seierstad (2016)
In 2013, teen sisters from near Oslo, the Norwegian capital, packed their bags and travelled to Syria to enlist in jihad. Two Sisters tells of what happened, with the help of the girls’ family, in particular their distraught father Sadiq. Predictably for a book about jihad, there is violence and fear, but this book is about so much more than that. What’s truly compelling about Seierstad’s journalism, aside from her rigorous research and blow-by-blow storytelling capacity, is that she offers no final judgement – only lessons along the way. In relaying the facts and interviewing people with different perspectives, she feeds compassion and understanding into the book, and depicts with care the internal difficulties that can arise from growing up as an “outsider” in mostly-white Norway.
- Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman (2018)
The Norse myths don’t only belong to Norway, so this is cheating a bit, but this book gave me such an appreciation for Nordic cultural heritage that it seemed wrong not to include it. We all know about the Greek myths, but Neil Gaiman has skilfully breathed new life into this colourful cast of Norse gods who are by turns manipulative, childlike, and vengeful, and who are just as delightful to read about. There’s Loki, the cheeky shape-shifter, Thor, the thunderous deity many of us will be familiar with, and Yggdrasil, the eternal tree of life. Norwegian shares some linguistic origins with English, both having inherited words from the Old Norse. For example, the word for “puffin” in Norwegian is “lunde”; and there is a small island off the Welsh coast with a huge puffin population called “Lundy”. Reading these old tales, English-speakers will find themselves recognising words and stories, and feeling connected to northern Europe’s more pagan past.