I was suckered into buying Norwegian By Night. I'd never heard of it or of Derek B. Miller but it was a Daily Deal on Audible, the blurb was interesting and the reader sounded good so I went for it, thinking that I'd picked up a slightly quirky American twist on Nordic Noir.
What I'd actually bought was something very rare, an accessible, enjoyable, realistic novel that navigates its way through the difficult waters of grief, memory, guilt, dementia, loss and personal bravery, while still providing a page turning plot that made laugh, cry and hope very much that everyone would be alright, although I knew they probably wouldn't.
For the first few chapters, I agreed with the NYT review quoted on the cover of the book, that Norwegian By Night "has the brains of a literary novel in the body of a thriller." After a while, I put that idea aside and realised that Norwegian By Night was really an insight into the mind, memories and dreams of an eighty-three year old man, Sheldon Horowitz, using what's left of his life to come to grips with his past while trying to do the right thing in the present.
The language of the book so perfectly captures emotions and thoughts and world views that I kept wanting to stop and write phrases down. The ideas are complex and uncompromising. The characters don't have back-stories, they have lives that they themselves have a constantly shifting understanding of, and which have created the person who is about to take the next choice in who they will become. Their choices are shaped by who they are: a Jew, a policewoman, a mother, a soldier, a patriot, a father.
Sheldon Horowitz, the watchmaker whose mind slides backwards and forwards in time, is one of the most memorable people I've met in a book for a very long time. I enjoyed the beauty of the slow unfolding of his identity through snatches of memory, vivid dreams, and conversations with ghosts from his past who he knows aren't really there. This associative rather than linear process, with memory hooked to topics, not strung like pegs on the clothes line of time, is closer to my personal experience of remembering and mourning. I also enjoyed Sheldon's tenacious, well-argued refusal to be diagnosed as having dementia and his view that spending the end of your life focusing on making sense of your past is the only sane use of old-age.
Sheldon is driven by the need to act and to to bear witness. He places importance on the remembrance of sin, his own and other people's. He seems to be looking not for forgiveness or even atonement but for the ability to accept wrongs done and choices made.
After returning from Korea, Sheldon became briefly famous when he published a book of photographs of people in Europe that he had provoked into anger. At first this seemed to have been a frivolous, even jolly, thing to have done. Then I realised that he had a more serious intent: he had wanted to see what would move the people who had allowed the extermination of the Jews to be angry enough to act. It felt to me as if Norwegian By Night was like hat camera being pushed in my face, especially around the issues on refugees and the violence in the Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. I live in Switzerland, which has a large population of Kosovars and was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo as a nation but assimilating the refugees from that background of extreme violence is not easy. It felt to me that Derek Miller was challenging me about my (lack of) response on these issues. It was as if, Sheldon was saying to me: "What is WRONG with you people? You know these histories. You know these people. Yet you do nothing. Don't you see what your silence does? Don't you care?" Sheldon/Miller is inviting all of us to bear witness.
So how come this book won the 2013 CWA John Creasey Dagger (for the best crime novel by a first-time author of any nationality first published in the UK in English during the Judging Period)? Well, Norwegian By Night meets all the criteria for a crime novel: there are murders, and criminals and a police investigation. Also, judges like Maxim Jakubowski recognise good fiction when they see it.
Yet Norwegian By Night is a novel that uses a genre rather than a genre novel. This book has a simple focus - save the boy from the people who killed his mother. It moves forward towards a safe haven in a short timeframe. It has an unambiguous objective that requires ingenuity, bravery, kindness and sacrifice. The genre provides a solid framework around which Miller can unravel the yarn on Sheldon's life, in the same way that a well-known tune provides a framework for a jazz musician to improvise from.
Genre novels work because they tug at a hunger for a particular type of reading experience and satisfy it. The good ones go beyond satisfying the expectations the reader turned up with and add new ones, creating new hungers in the process. The best ones, like Norwegian By Night, do all of that and then make you consider what your own hunger of this genre tells you about you and the world you live and the gaps between what you have and what you want.
Too often, mainstream literature is neutralized by a readership that is driven less by a hunger for something as by a smug complacency at being able to recognize a novel as "delightfully clever and wonderfully insightful". This complacency makes it safe to float strange ideas in literary novels: few people will read them and an even smaller proportion of them are willing or able to engage with the novel outside a formal framework for literary criticism.
Genre gives the author a well understood structure to hang their ideas on. Shakespeare doesn't have a set of "literary" plays. He has "Game of Thrones" style historical struggles "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of Kings". He has tragedies where people lose all they have and all they might have been in a moment's insanity "My way of life has fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age... I cannot look to have." Comedies that make us laugh but still slip ideas into our minds like a blade between the ribs "Is it possible he should know what he is, and be that he is?".
In my view, Norwegian By Night is a mainstream book in the same way that Macbeth is a mainstream play. All of the people Norwegian By Night, especially the Sheldon Horowitz, have the choices they have to make today framed by who they have been, the guilt that they carry, the hopes they have lost. All of them have the option to choose to get closer to who they want to be by the choices that they take next.
If you'd like to know more about Derek Miller and his difficulties in getting this novel published - "Love the writing, Darling, but how do we sell it?" - take a look at this INTERVIEW.