cover image The Birds

The Birds

Tarjei Vesaas. Peter Owen Publishers, $24 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-7206-0952-3

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. (Jan.)