The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen

Boxing. The noble art of self-defense.

In an effort to be less defenseless and partly because my university required physical education to graduate, I took years of boxing and kickboxing in college. My training wasn’t quite as effective as one would hope, as I still feel too ridiculous for anyone aside from my trainer to watch me. My college boyfriend offered to pay an ungodly sum of money (or it seemed so at the time) to be allowed to watch. I declined. Let’s hope, for the sake of survival, that should I ever be attacked I am not too embarrassed to defend myself.

The Half Brother

If you read Tuesday’s list, you know I enjoy a good bout of fictional boxing (and now you know why). I recently finished The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen and it’s one of the best books I’ve read (ever.). I don’t speak Norwegian (the closest I get is limited Swedish and that’s mostly the impolite words, oddly, the same is true about my German as well), but The Half Brother makes me wish I did. I enjoy translated fiction, but I am always curious how it would be in its original language. Everything loses a bit of something in translation.

The Half Brother is a huge, both figuratively and literally, story that focuses on the lives of an nontraditional family. It is reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen and John Irving, at times oddly comedic and jarringly intimate.  It defies my limited descriptive abilities, so I am borrowing from Goodreads (though, if you ask me, their description is rather lacking too).

The Half Brother traces four generations of a family marked by the untimely birth of Fred, a misfit and boxer conceived during a devastating rape who forges an unusual friendship with his younger half-brother, Barnum.

The novel tells the story of a family of women living in Oslo. Vera, the youngest, is brutally raped on VE Day and the result is Fred. Years later, she marries a man she never even knows and Barnum is born. They anchor the story; the presence of men is ethereal and mysterious at best (their ability to come and go is in direct contrast to the women’s steadfastness). Despite this, a large focus of the novel is Barnum. Although his world is limited, both physically (he’s as short and squat and Fred is tall and this) and globally (Fred wishes to protect him from everything), he still ends up a celebrated screen writer with a penchant for alcohol.

It’s not what you see that matters most, but rather what you think you see.

The novel is very much about love and the complications both its presence and absence causes. The complex relationships are set against the backdrop of Oslo (used much like Irving uses Vienna) and boxing. Barnum’s world is shaped by both the presence and persistence of Fred and, conversely, its emptiness in his absence. It deftly explores relationships – the familial, fraternal, and the romantic, spanning the decades after World War II. The characters are finely wrought, yet elusive and mysterious. This book is not easy, it is a challenging examination of the intricacies of family (and probably the best piece of boxing fiction I have ever read). Oddly enough, the more I like a novel, the harder it is for me to talk about it, as is the case here. So we’ll simply leave it at this: go read the book if you haven’t already. 5/5. Translated from Norwegian by Kenneth Steven.

And no worries if you are not a boxer, this is still genuinely great fiction. Also, if you are concerned about self-defense (as I am), this book would be an excellent investment – you can read it and, at nearly 700 pages, use it as a sizable weapon.

Sun Dried Tomato

As far as I can tell, the characters of the novel survive on the consumption of alcohol. I am recommending something with a bit more substance (Sun-Dried Tomato and Red Pepper Pesto Pasta).

For the curious, in 2013 there have been four 5/5 books: Donnybrook, Double Feature, NOS4A2, and The Half Brother. 50% of the novelists listed are related.


6 thoughts on “The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen

  1. I love you reviews you always make me laugh “And no worries if you are not a boxer, this is still genuinely great fiction. Also, if you are concerned about self-defense (as I am), this book would be an excellent investment – you can read it and, at nearly 700 pages, use it as a sizable weapon.” You should write a book someday you have a great sense of humor!


    1. Aw, thanks, that means a lot actually. I don’t intend to write a book, but it’s nice to know you might read it if I did. 🙂


  2. I’m always wary of reading translated fiction. Part of it stems from my background in music… we were strongly discouraged from singing English translations, for a variety of reasons. But, while I always had the option of singing in the original Italian or German or what have you, I obviously don’t have the option of reading books in languages I can’t understand. Isn’t it better to expose myself to these works, even if they aren’t exactly the way the author wrote it? Especially since, for the most part, I read more for the story than the prose.


    1. I think so and I think translation matters more depending on the type of novel. I think if plot if the driving force than the quality of the translation is less important. For books like this one, which leans more towards literary fiction, I think translation is incredibly important. This novel was well translated (i.e. I couldn’t tell I was reading a translation).

      It’s interesting that you were discouraged from singing in English, but it makes sense. I think in music word choice and sound (whatever technical term that may be) is more important than directly understanding it – especially if the words are supposed to flow a certain way. Clearly I know little about music other than the joy of listening to it.


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