Lars Saabye Christensen

"The Half Brother"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2004)

"We do not disappear without a trace. We leave a wake that never quite disappears, a gash in time that we so laboriously leave behind us."

The Half Brother by Lars Christensen

One of the biggest, most ambitiously conceived and richly imagined novels you may ever read, Christensen's The Half Brother may become one of the most "important" books of this generation. It has already won the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and it has been nominated for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Critics across the globe have universally praised it, and some have declared it to be of Nobel Prize-winning caliber.

A haunting story of four generations of a strange Norwegian family, each member of which suffers from being different in some respect, The Half Brother is as complete a family saga as you will ever find. Every character is fully delineated, and all his/her relationships and relevant background experiences are brought to life here, filtered through the mind of Barnum Nilsen, who recreates in detail important events in the lives of his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, including events which happened before he was born.

Barnum is the youngest member of this family, the son of a former circus worker and grifter who named his son in the belief that "Barnum was king of America…He was mightier than Alexander the Great and Napoleon put together." Barnum's half-brother Fred, named by the taxi driver in whose taxi he was born, is a sad, dyslexic, and angry child who hates the fact that he was the product of his mother's rape by an unknown soldier. His additional hatred for his step-father, Arnold Nilsen, is so palpable that he once asks Barnum, "Shall I kill your father for you?" Complete opposites, Barnum and Fred have an unusual but ultimately close relationship, with Fred being huge and very physical while Barnum is unusually small and more cerebral, Fred being an action man while Barnum is far more passive, and Fred often being violent while Barnum avoids confrontation. Two halves of the same coin, neither brother is very successful alone.

Four generations of the family live together. Barnum's great-grandmother, The Old One, is a former silent film star whose true love vanished on a voyage of discovery to Greenland, leaving behind only his final letter to her--and the daughter with whom she was pregnant. Boletta, Barnum's grandmother, often drunk and out all night at the North Pole tavern, is the single mother of Vera, Barnum's mother. Other characters who have affected the lives of family members "live on" through objects that they have left behind with the family. Barnum and Fred often read their great-grandfather's letter from Greenland for comfort and a sense of connection to the past, and the letter becomes a totem within the family. Vera's best friend Rakel leaves Vera with a treasured ring, just before she is taken away to Ravensbruck during the Nazi occupation of Norway. Barnum buys a ring with the letter T engraved on it for his first girlfriend, and though he is never able to give it to her, it has meaning for him even when he is middle-aged. Arnold Nilsen, Barnum's father, steals a "suitcase of applause" from the circus, and Barnum eventually finds himself toting it, too.

As this immense story unfolds, the reader finds the action harking backward, forward, and in upon itself. Friends are not only friends, they are the source of information about the main characters and their thinking, and the friends' equally tumultuous and dramatic lives often provide contrast to the lives of the Nilsens and illustrate themes. Everyone is alone, and everyone has reason to be sad. Life is not easy, people betray and are betrayed, and yet they keep going.

Silence, disappearances, and deaths pervade the book. Vera goes silent for eight months and thirteen days after she is raped by a soldier and becomes pregnant, and Fred is silent for twenty-two months after he is implicated in the death of The Old One. The great-grandfather has disappeared in Greenland, and the father of Boletta's child never appears. Arnold Nilsen disappears periodically after his marriage to Vera, and Fred, the half-brother, disappears as a child and for long periods of time as an adult. Barnum himself, later in his life, disappears for several years. Permanent disappearance, i.e., death, occurs to the Old One, Arnold Nilsen, and Vera's friend Rakel, among others, and accidents involving other characters cast a pall over much of the novel, highlighting the "aloneness" of each person, and the quixotic nature of fate. Yet throughout these incidents, there is a dark humor which keeps both the characters and the reader going, something that makes them want to be more than "skin dead," to soldier on and to "leave a wake that never quite disappears, a gash in time that we leave behind us."

This is a huge book, almost seven hundred, dense pages long, but the pages fly by, despite significant typographical limitations. The author does not insert much paragraphing, and whole pages go on without any breaks at all. Quotations are not indented for each speaker and are simply imbedded in the paragraphs, giving an overall "gray" look to page after page. This style is consistent with Barnum's internal monologues and dialogues, and once the reader becomes accustomed to it, it is not a serious distraction, however. It does, however, lead to a breath-taking pace for the reader with few chances to pause, look around, and think about what s/he is reading.

With page after page of well-drawn, memorable scenes, dozens of carefully presented characters whose entire lives and history you know completely, surprises buried within seemingly ordinary tales, and the creation of a complete and unique universe, this is a novel which will richly reward the reader who is not intimidated by its size. Ultimately, it is a novel that, like the moonlight, "welds together reality and all our imaginings."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to

  • The Amateur (1977)
  • The Joker (1981)
  • Yesterday (1984) (originally published as The Beatles)
  • Herman (1988)
  • Bly (1990)
  • Nobody's: stories (1992)
  • The Boy Who Wanted to be One of the Guys (1992)
  • Jubelation (1995)
  • The Envious Hairdresser: stories (1997)
  • The Half Brother (2001, May 2004 in US)
  • The Figwort Family (2003)


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About the Author:

Lars Saaybe ChristensenLars Saaybe Christensen was born in 1953 in Oslo, Norway. He is one of the most important Norwegian authors; since 1976 he has written three collections of short stories, twelve novels and ten collections of poetry. Christensen has won many prizes, including the Nordic Prize 2002 for The Half Brother, the Tarjei Vesaas Prize for First Fiction, the Norwegian Critics Prize, The Brage Award and the Bookseller's Prize. His writing has been published throughout Europe, in the US and in Pakistan. His story The Jealous Hairdresser was been made into a movie.

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