We’re only two weeks into 2016, but I think I may have my nonfiction book of the year in Asne Seierstad’s story of the Anders Breivik’s terrorist attack/mass murder in Norway.
Do you remember that one? Breivik was a ultra-nationalist, misogynistic anti-Islam lunatic who set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and then went to a summer camp where he murdered 69 people, most of them teenagers. It’s a awful awful, story and this book is five hundred pages long. I wasn’t sure I was up for that much information on this case, but it turns out, I was. In read this thing in a couple of days, it was that good.
It’s a stunning work of journalism. Reminiscent of Mailer’s Executioners Song in the depth of the reporting, the humanity with which everyone is treated, and the cool, direct reportage style. Seistad weaves together the story of Breivik’s troubled life with the lives of some of his young victims and while this book is, really, about Breivik, her portrayals of his victims are complex, and moving.
While this book is focused on Breivik, Seistad uses the story of Breivik and his victims to tell the story of the transformation of modern Norway from a homogeneous society into a multi-cultural one. She does this in a way that feels nuanced, direct, and brilliantly understated. It is deeply moving and unsettling.
Emotionally, the book is heartrending. The chapter “Friday” about the day of Breivik’s murder of over sixty children at a summer camp is, from start to finish, horrifying. Her portrayal of Breivik’s trial is maddening, both because Breivik is such an awful creature (he plays with his nails while his murders are described) but also because we’re left wondering – is he a madman or a political terrorist? Can he be both? Surely a man who kills this many innocent people isn’t “sane”, but is he responsible for his actions? He wants to be, but is that part of his delusion?
How does the state handle a man like this? ? Are we giving him what he wants by holding him accountable? There isn’t an easy answer* and thankfully, Seierstad doesn’t attempt to provide one. She provides us with the facts. How they haunt our thoughts is up to us.
*Though I wonder if these issues would have been as thoroughly investigated if he weren’t white.