The Half Brother

Lars Saabye Christensen is an important Norwegian writer, and his book, The Half Brother, amply demonstrates why. As the winner of the 2002 Nordic Council Literature Prize, the book has garnered high praise from both critics and readers alike.

The book is narrated by screenwriter Barnum Nilsen, a very small man who tells the story of his family and friends, a saga that transcends generations. The book opens at a cinema festival where Barnum and his best friend Peder are trying to sell a screenplay. Barnum clearly has problems with both alcohol and the truth; consequently as a narrator, he is not always reliable. Further, the novel moves through loosely connected vignettes and stories. A memory will move Barnum into a story from the past that then spurs another memory and another story.

After the brief section at the festival, the book recounts the rape and subsequent pregnancy of Barnum’s mother, Vera, on VE Day, May 8, 1945. She bears her son Fred into a household of women: her mother Boletta, also an unwed mother; and the Old One, her grandmother. Later, drifter Arnold Nilsen (another very short man) comes into their lives when he weds Vera, and they produce Barnum, named after the great American circus entertainer.

Christensen takes his time weaving together the stories; the Old One, Boletta, Vera, Arnold, Fred, Barnum, Peder, and Vivian (Barnum’s wife) circle and connect to each other in lyrical and unexpected ways, creating a rich tapestry of love, and pain, and memory.