For a relatively small country, Norway has a rich literary tradition. From the plays of Ibsen to the modern crime dramas so beloved in Scandinavia, Norwegians are big readers. Here are five must-read Norwegian books, all of which are available in English.
With a population of just 5.5 million, Norway is a relatively small country. That must mean a small pool of great writers, right? Despite its size, Norway still enjoys a strong literary tradition with many famous names, past and present.
A proud literary tradition
Thanks to the likes of Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset and Jo Nesbø, Norway is not such an obscure country when it comes to literature. England has Shakespeare, Sweden has Strindberg, Russia has Chekov but Norway has Ibsen, one of the greatest playwrights that ever lived.
In this article, I'll give the rundown of my five Norwegian favourites, all of which are available in English. The books I cover come personally recommended, so if you're looking for a translated Norwegian novel to get stuck into, read on.
Read more: Libraries in Norway
Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth
When I moved back to Norway recently, Vigdis Hjorth's Will and Testament was a novel I felt I had to read, mostly based on the amount of publicity the book received in Norway and beyond.
But did I want to read it in the dark of winter? No. Did I read it in the dark and sometimes depressing winter months? Yes, I did. You’ll see why when I explain the subject matter of the novel.
Will and Testament caused something of a literary scandal when it was released in Norway in 2016. The narrative focuses on Bergljot, the protagonist who is involved a family feud over inheritance. Hjorth walks the reader through the love, the hate and the arguments of one suburban Norwegian family.
In addition to inheritance dispute, in which her two sisters are given a pair of family cabins while Bergljot and her brother go without, there is also the disturbing plot around that include the sexual abuse Bergljot endured – from her father – as child.
Read more: The Future Norwegian Library
I won’t lie and say this was an easy book to read but it was something quite different from anything else I've ever read before.
Hjorth insists Will and Testament is a work of fiction, but New Yorker said the book “divided a family and captivated a country.” Why not grab a copy and judge for yourself?
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Ok, while it isn’t a novel, I couldn’t compile a list of Norway’s finest without including Henrik Ibsen. And it had to be his most famous play, A Doll’s House.
I always believe this text is a great way into the wonderful world of the greatest playwright that the world has ever known.
Published in 1879, the play revolves around the Nora and her Husband, Torvald. Nora comes to realise that she is nothing more than ‘a plaything’ or ‘doll’ in the charade that is a bourgeois existence in the late nineteenth century.
The narrative drives towards Nora finally finding the courage to speak out and confront her husband. Her decision about her future draws to the play’s dramatic and memorable conclusion. Read more about the life of Henrik Ibsen here.
Naïve. Super by Erland Loe
Naïve. Super is a profound and funny novel, as so often Erland Loe’s books are. The story centres on a man who is searching for the true meaning of existence, of life.
Often philisopical, sometimes nostalgic, Naïve. Super is one of those novels that forces you to contemplate things you never had previously.
The protagonist’s enlightening journey takes him from Norway to New York to visit his brother. His visit to America allows him time to consider all aspects of his life. And by the time he returns home to Norway, he has more of an appreciation for life.
Another book by Loe that is well worth a read is the humorous 2004 novel Doppler.
The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
How could I write a list of top Norwegian novels to read and not include some Nordic noir – a genre of dark crime fiction. Jo Nesbø is most arguably Norway’s most prolific crime writer. His books have become international bestsellers.
One of Nesbø’s novels that stands out is The Snowman. Published 2017, it’s the seventh book in the Harry Hole series, which again follows the unorthodox detective as he hunts down a serial killer.
Hole discovers that a lot of the victims appear to vanish with the first snowfall each winter. Before long, other patterns start to emerge. One of them is the presence of a snowman at each murder scene. While Hole is tracing the footprints of the killer, nicknamed ‘the Snowman’, he also has his own personal preoccupations and vices to deal with.
This novel is a great read and best in enjoyed during a dark and cold of winter, all cosy under a blanket, with a hot chocolate within reaching distance.
The Snowman was also adapted into a film starring Michael Fassbender but flopped in the cinemas. Critics also gave the film poor reviews.
The Ice Palace by Terjei Vesaas
The 1963 novel The Ice Palace by Terjei Vesaas is an elegant little novel. It's a classic in the Norwegian canon, a quick read and one that’s well worth your time.
The Ice Palace is one of those books that you can read again and again, and each time comprehend something different in the layered writing. That’s not to say that it is a confusing novel, just a metaphorical masterpiece.
It’s a story about a mysterious little girl called Unn, who has a secret, and her friend Siss, whom she promises to reveal her secret to. But in the initial and tender friendship that develops over a short space of time between the two is suddenly shattered when Unn disappears.
The descriptive nature of this novel is beautiful. You really see the landscape through the delicate words that have been cradfted by Vesaas. A Norwegian classic.
Other Norwegian authors to check out
There are many plays by Henrik Ibsen I would have loved to include in this list, such as Peer Gynt, The Lady From the Sea and the writer's last work, When We Dead Awaken, but there simply wasn’t room.
Another Norwegian writer that deserves a mention is the 1903 Nobel prize winner Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. The poet, novelist, playwright and lyricist was and is still an iconic figure in the world of Norwegian literature. Bjørnson famously wrote the Norwegian national anthem, which highlights his lyrical expertise. This makes him another notable absentee.
If you're into modern Norwegian crime, check out Anne Holt. The former Norwegian Minister of Justice now writes a long-running series of crime novels featuring detective Hanne Wilhelmsen. Here's a review of 1222, released in 2007. Other popular crime authors include Karin Fossum and Gunnar Staalesen.
There are many or Norwegian novels I could have included, but I can only review books I’ve read and, of course, enjoyed. Happy reading!