Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #12, Winter 2004-2005]

The Half Brother
By Lars Saabye Christensen
Translated from the Norwegian by Kenneth Steven
Arcade Publishing, 2004

Reviewed by Michael Allen Potter

Winner of the 2002 Nordic Prize for Literature, Lars Saabye Christensen's epic about a Norwegian family living in Oslo in the wake of Nazi occupation, has achieved major critical acclaim and commercial success wherever it has been published. Having conquered more than twenty countries to date, Christensen's The Half Brother (translated from the Norwegian by Kenneth Steven) is now poised to take North America in true Viking fashion.

The opening scenes of the novel unfold on VE Day, May 8th, 1945, and center around three generations of women (The Old One, Boletta, and Vera) who live in a working class neighborhood in the Norwegian capital. Their collective joy at the end of World War II is shattered, however, after Vera (who is not yet twenty) is sexually assaulted by a soldier of unknown nationality in a remote corner of their apartment building. Vera gives birth to the first of two sons, Fred, whose emotional presence is as conspicuous as his physical absence for most of the book. Vera's second son, Barnum, is born years later after her marriage to an enigmatic entrepreneur who manages to keep his vocation from the family until well after his own demise.

Barnum narrates the majority of this work and his perspective on the world around him is skewed in equal measure by his stature (which is quite small) and by the combination of protection and menace offered by his older sibling. Barnum's interest in cinema, and his subsequent development into a celebrated screenwriter, stems from an early encounter with a film crew shooting on location in one of Oslo's myriad urban parks. Christensen uses his city as a force that informs the essential cores of his main characters just as Joyce did before him with Dublin and Hugo with Paris.

"It's not what you see that matters most but rather what you think you see," a refrain echoed and mimicked by various characters throughout the course of the narrative, works as a constant reminder of the overwhelming sense of loss that pervades this novel. All of the men in this family leave in some way, shape or form, either literally or figuratively, leaving only trails of question marks in their wake. Fred, the enigmatic half-brother, starts to disappear from the apartment as soon as he is physically able. At first, he is gone for a night, maybe two, but then for weeks and months at a stretch and his restless wanderings in search of something equally unnamed affects everyone in the house and, to a certain extent, everyone in the city quite profoundly. Fred grows up to be a man of few words and long silences and his brutish character is miraculously developed by Christensen in what seems like a handful of sentences uttered in the darkness of the small room that he shares with Barnum. One night, late at night, Fred takes a wrong turn, down the wrong alley at the wrong time and is brutally beaten by four men. His first medical attention is delivered by the hands of a recent WWII veteran as Christensen writes eloquently about carnage and the repercussions of war after hostilities have officially ended.
And I can hear Montgomery screaming. And when Montgomery screams, he wakes the entire city, whether we're sleeping or not. Montgomery screams like a possessed rooster, and no longer knows the difference between the sun and the moon. He crawls along the railway tracks in his long army jacket, weeping and screaming, the old and broken soldier. He's still at war, because the war is still in him. He left his senses in Normandy in 1944, and now there's just a front-line trench in his soul and a bloody beach in his heart as far as he can see. And every night Montgomery screams to wake the dead. He lies down beside Fred, who's sunk into the frail brown grass now. And Montgomery carefully lifts his head and pours brandy into his mutilated mouth. Montgomery cries; he screams and cries and whispers. "Don't be frightened, boy. The Allies are coming soon."

When Barnum asks him where he's been, before he sees his brother's damaged face, Fred's only response is, "Shut it." After Fred disappears for over two decades, it will be these conversations, cloaked in late night mystery and clouded by the passage of time, that will most affect Barnum as an adult and inform his own life and work as he wrestles to transform the shadow of his brother from two into three dimensions.

The novel is massive (metaphorically and otherwise) and Christensen is aware of the fact that what he has written is most definitely a contemporary Norse saga that simultaneously upholds and upbraids thousands of years of Scandinavian literary history. (His treatment of the work of Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author who fell from grace after publishing a sympathetic obituary for Adolf Hitler, is especially hilarious in its vehemence.) Typically, books about writers writing about writing lack a certain level of dramatic action, but Barnum's antisocial personality, his penchant for strong drink, and his complex familial, platonic, and romantic relationships propel this incredible narrative with a highly volatile, yet consistently graceful, momentum


Order The Half Brother from


Michael Allen Potter's work has appeared in print and online publications nationwide. He has reviewed music, film, and video for magazines such as New York Collegian, Art & Understanding, The Source Literary Supplement, and AVN, and has recently been given a column with

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press