Thursday, September 29, 2005

Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm

Peter Stamm sets Unformed Landscape in the remotest area of Norway, in a village that can only be reached by boat, where most people either fish or work for the fish factory. It is near the borders with Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Stamm describes the political borders, covered by snow and darkness, as irrelevant and ignored. "The real borders were between day and night, between summer and winter, between the people.”

The central character is Katherine, a young woman who works for the customs service; she spends much of her time inspecting Russian boats for illegal cigarettes and vodka. She is only twenty-two at the beginning of the story, but she is already divorced from the father of her son, a boy who is never referred to by name until half way through the novel. She likes her job because she meets many people who have seen the outside world; Katherine has been to Hammerfest twice, but she has never been south of the Arctic Circle. The best day of her life was the day she rode in a helicopter to make a raid on a Russian trawler; she enjoyed seeing the fjords from the air. She has very few options in her life. She is agrees to marry Thomas because it might improve her situation; this proves to be a bad decision.

I do not want to reveal too much, to spoil the mystery of the story, which covers six years of Katherine’s life. It takes most of the novel for the reader to come to know the quiet woman, whose past is revealed very slowly by the author.

Reading Unformed Landscape feels a lot like watching a Scandinavian film; I was surprised to learn the author is Swiss. He probably has seen many European films; he has one of his characters watch Truffaut's Belle du Jour. I suspect anyone who enjoys Ingmar Bergen films will enjoy this novel.

Stamm, Peter. Unformed Landscape. New York: Handsel Books, 2004. ISBN 1590511409

I learned about this book by reading the Review-A-Day from Powell’s Books.

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