With spare simplicity, this story tells the tale of Mattis, a mentally disabled man cared for by his lonely older sister, Hege. Their routine, isolated existence is interrupted when a lumberjack arrives at their lakeside cottage and falls in love with Hege, leaving Mattis fearful that he will lose his sister. The careful translation from the Norwegian underscores Vesaas’s
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Like a gentle ripple across calming waters, or a songbird taking flight in the early morning sunrise, Tarjei Vesaas writes a delicately structured story of two siblings living a serene existence in rural Norway. Mattis is a sweet natured simpleton who burns the days away drifting off into his own world, whilst older sister Hege knits sweaters in their cottage by the lake. On occasions Mattis wonders around the local farms looking for work, picking crops, or bailing hay, but he finds it difficult
The Birds captures the frustrations of unfulfilled time in a spare and humane way, it is both a tender and warm look at those on the fringes of a normal life, but it also presents itself with an overpowering sadness, mainly for the reason of Mattis, who completely took hold of me the whole way through, he made me laugh, and almost made me cry, the reader sees the world that Mattis sees but is able to interpret it with more sophistication. there are several moments where we are able to understand the motivations and the actions of the people around Mattis when he is, shall we say, not all there. A woodcock would fly one day over the cottage, having Mattis take off into the clouds believing it’s of some important significance, infuriating Hege as he will just not shut up about it. You can feel somewhat sympathetic for Hege, stuck all alone with a simple brother, yearning for some joy or romance in her life.
Whether it was intended, there are also moments that are quite tense, Mattis would become a ferryman, carrying people across the lake, the trouble is there is just no one about, but at least he has a reason to face the day with more enthusiasm, he is now an important figure, or so he would believe, leading to a cramped moment on his boat where he tries to show off with two girls he ferries back to land. He would then pick up a lumberjack (Jorgen) who works in the forest and agrees to put him up in the cottage. And it’s here that the behaviours of brother and sister would change. As Hege and Jorgen gradually become lovers, Mattis fails to handle this new situation, and just makes the complications of his world even more confusing. And you are never quite sure just what he has up his sleeve to try and get the attention of Hege back.
There are many beautiful passages of description, animals, forests, the lake and surrounding area, which had me thinking of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, also the character of Mattis does bear some resemblance to that of Lennie from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (although both books don’t really sit with each other).
The Birds is ultimately a moving portrait of a simple and despondent life, and thus hoping to break free from a trapped scenario. An incredibly beautiful piece of writing that takes your mind away from the modern world, and even though it appears to end all of a sudden, this is one unforgettable read that’s not going away any time soon.