A tale of delicate beauty and deceptive simplicity by one of the greatest Scandinavian writers of the 20th century -- The Birds tells the story of Mattis, who has mental disabilities and lives in a small house near a lake with his sister Hege who ekes out a modest living knitting sweaters. From time to time Mattie encourages her brother to find work to ease their financial burdens, but her attempts come to nothing. When finally he sets himself up as a ferryman, the only passenger he manages to bring across the lake is a lumberjack, Jørgen. When Jørgen and Hege become lovers, Mattis finds he cannot adjust to this new situation.
The main reason I picked this up, I admit, was because of the BookRiot Read Harder Challenge -- this year one of the categories is to read a translated work. I found a copy of this secondhand, the story sounded compelling and I couldn't recall reading anything by a Scandinavian author before so I thought this might be something cool and different to try out. I was even more intrigued after learning that author Tarjei Vesaas (1897-1970) was actually a two-time Nobel Prize for Literature nominee!
The story The Birds itself is pretty simple. Forty year old spinster Hege is living with her mentally challenged brother, Mattis (3 years younger). Hege struggles to make enough money for them to live off of, begging Mattis to go out every day and find some kind of work. While Mattis does go out each day, he seems easily distracted so by day's end he typically comes home with little to no money earned. At night Mattis has a recurring dream of birds, then whenever he sees birds during the day he feels there's great symbolism behind it, that it's a sign of a great change coming for them. Hege, while loyal her brother and dedicated to protecting and taking care of him, is clearly and increasingly depressed over her life situation and the lack of opportunities for her. Even Mattis mentions that he notices her sadness and wants to help her. He eventually finds work as a ferryman. One day Mattis picks up Jorgen, a lumberjack who comes to the area looking for work. He stays with Mattis & Hege one night and then never really leaves. Mattis notices something developing between Jorgen and Hege, at first pleased to see his sister smiling again but then he grows increasingly uncomfortable with the changes in the household, worrying that the now fixed presence of Jorgen will mean that Hege might want to kick Mattis out. Tensions grow between the three of them until the kettle of emotions between them starts to squeal and the reader is brought to a climactic ending... or not...
I'm not sure if something was lost in the translation, but I kept waiting for an intense, emotional build up that never really got there for me. The story isn't very long at all but by the end it felt like a whole lotta nothing had happened. There was decent brother-sister development between Hege and Mattis, and I could feel Mattis' frustration at not having the ability to express himself better but elsewhere the story fell short for me. The "romance" between Jorgen and Hege was pretty lackluster. It was essentially a few smiles back and forth and Jorgen confessing to Mattis "your sister and I have become close. *wink wink*" Oh stop. My heart palpitations. And then Mattis' freak out at the end left me completely confused. I just wanted to be on the shore yelling "Dude! Where are you even going?!" And then the story just stops there. I almost felt like I was watching one of those artsy French films with little to no explanation.
I wouldn't be against trying something else of Vesaas' because there was something to his writing (or at least from what I could gather from this translation) that I did like. I was just left a little underwhelmed by this one. It felt like a quiet little character study with a big ol' dramatic ending.... but without the proper buildup to justify that kind of emotional ending I think Vesaas was going for.