Thursday, 3 October 2019

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen
First published in Norwegian as Byens Spor in Norway by Cappelen Damm As in 2017. English language translation by Don Bartlett published by MacLehose Press today, the 3rd October 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Christensen is one of Scandinavia's finest and most celebrated storytellers, who has devoted the best part of his career to writing about the city of his birth. As Oslo slowly emerges from a period of crippling austerity, Echoes of the City shows how small, almost imperceptible acts of kindness and compassion, and tiny shifts in fortune, can change the lives of many.

At the centre of the novel are Maj and Ewald Kristoffersen and their son Jesper, their lives closely entwined and overlapping with their neighbours' on Kirkeveien. When the butcher's son Jostein is knocked down in a traffic accident and loses his hearing, Jesper promises to be his ears in the world. The arrival of a long-awaited telephone is a major event for Maj and Ewald, and meanwhile their neighbour, recently widowed Fru Vik, tentatively takes up with the owner of the bookshop near the cemetery. The bar at Hotel Bristol becomes a meeting place for all of them - for Ewald and his advertising colleagues, for Fru Vik and her suitor, to the piano playing of hapless Enzo Zanetti, an immigrant down on his luck, who enables Jesper to discover his true passion.

The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women.

I've previously read one Lars Saabye Christensen novel, The Model, which I quite enjoyed, but not as much as this author's reputation made me feel I should. So I was eager to give this new Don Bartlett translation of Christensen's Echoes Of The City a try. This novel is already being called his masterpiece and I can understand why it is garnering such acclaim, although I wasn't so moved by it myself. The gently meandering story is set in Oslo in the years following the Second World War as the city's people attempt to overcome the immediate past and look to the future. It will soon be Oslo's 900th anniversary which must be celebrated although ideas differ about exactly what or who should be the central focus. I felt that Echoes Of The City had a strong sense of poignant melancholy to it. Almost a huzun nostalgia (if you've read Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul). Much of the atmosphere comes from small actions such as a woman trying on a Dior New Look dress that she will never be able to afford or a child unwittingly selling Red Cross stamps for the wrong price. Interspersing the chapters with reports from local Red Cross meetings adds to the sense of people, especially women, being desperate to improve their lives and their society, but without the means to do so on enough of a scale to effect real change.

I think I would be more enthusiastic about Echoes Of The City if it hadn't been quite such a long book. The pace is very slow throughout. It is beautifully written though so I could appreciate individual scenes and loved Christensen's clarity of vision in portraying his characters. However, at half way through the novel I was already finding I was forcing myself to pick it up again to read just a couple more chapters. For a voracious reader such as m, this is practically unheard of! I didn't want to abandon the novel because, as I have said, it has good points and I wanted to find out what happened in the end. I just wish the end could have come a hundred or so pages sooner.

Etsy Find!
by Wool Pleasure in
Mandal, Norway

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Books by Lars Saabye Christensen / Historical fiction / Books from Norway


  1. It is always a tricky situation when you have a 'masterpiece' that just doesn't quite ring true for you. I used to feel like I was wrong, or missing something, when I hated or was indifferent to books people loved. I am much less worried about that now though, and I am glad you were able to enjoy much of it.

    1. It's difficult, though like you I get less worried now about my reactions diverging from 'everyone else'. I could see how Echoes could be acclaimed, but it just didn't quite have the magic touch for me.

  2. I'm kind of curious about this author's "reputation" now.


    1. He is very much an Oslo author so I think my appreciation of the nuances of his work would be higher if I had a better knowledge of Norwegian culture!