Sunday, April 15, 2018

Book Review: "Norwegian by Night" by Derek B. Miller

Sigh. I really wanted to like this one.

Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night tackles a lot of weighty issues—growing older, how we deal with grief, being a stranger in an unfamiliar place, reconciling our spiritual identity, unrest among Eastern European countries, and bonds that form between strangers. It's a pretty ambitious mission for a book that's supposed to be a bit of a thriller.

Sheldon Horowitz is nearing the end of his life. His beloved wife Mabel has died, and he has never gotten over the death of his son Saul during the Vietnam War. Whether or not he's suffering from dementia is a matter of debate, as is the question of what he did during the Korean War—Sheldon insists he was a Marine sniper, although there's no evidence of that as far as Mabel ever knew.

"His memories were just becoming more vivid with age. Time was folding in a new way. Without a future, the mind turned back in on itself. That's not dementia. One might even say it's the only rational response to the inevitable."

Begrudgingly, Sheldon agrees to leave his longtime home in New York City and move with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars to Norway. It's more than a bit of a shock for Sheldon, being in a country where he doesn't speak the language, and where he's only one of 1000 Jews. So he expresses his displeasure with generally refusing to do what Rhea asks of him, and being increasingly more cantankerous.

One day when Sheldon is home on his own, he hears the woman who lives upstairs quarreling yet again with a man whose voice he hears quite frequently. That day the screaming becomes more strident, and before he realizes what is happening, Sheldon protects the woman's young son from what appears to be impending violence. The two hide, and when Sheldon realizes what has happened, he knows the boy is in danger, and the two of them flee.

As the pair begins their journey to find safety, they make an unlikely duo—an 82-year-old man who spends a lot of time in his head remembering people and times past, and a young boy that Sheldon calls Paul, a boy who speaks no English and isn't quite sure what has happened. For Sheldon, protecting the boy seems like an opportunity for a second chance, and it brings back memories that he has carried with him all these years.

If this book was just about Sheldon and Paul's search for safety and the people hunting them down, this could have been a really fascinating and heartfelt thriller. Unfortunately, Miller took the plot all over the place—it was often difficult to determine when Sheldon was reminiscing and when he was focused, there was a lot of conversations among the people hunting for the boy and discussion of the plight of Kosovo at the time, and the plot also got hijacked by the chief police inspector as she tried to find Sheldon before the bad guys did.

I know some people really enjoyed this book, but it was just too scattered for me, and there was so much stuffed into one story I found it hard to keep my interest. I liked many of the characters, so I might consider reading another of Miller's books (it looks like he's just written another, American by Day, which features the chief police inspector) in the future. I just wish this one worked out a little better, because it had so much potential.

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