By far the hardest parts to get through – as it perhaps is, in a book dealing with the deadliest attack in Norway since the Second World War – is not necessarily those detailing the murders, but their aftermath. A little more than halfway through Åsne Seierstad’s “One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway”, having mapped out the growth and profile of terrorist Anders Breivik, the growth and profile of a few of his to-be victims and their families, as well as his laborious preparations leading to the incident, a long chapter is devoted to a blow-by-blow account of the two sequential attacks on July 22, 2011. On that day, there was first a car bomb explosion, before shootings at a youth summer camp. And so the chapters which follow then focus on loss. The reactions to loss. Coping with loss. The acceptance of loss.
These accounts of various lives could, of course, have been embellished or exaggerated. To the best of her abilities Seierstad – through first-hand interviews, transcripts, and any other materials, as she explained right at the end of the book – in journalistic fashion sought to remain unbiased, reporting events as they transpired. Yet a reflexive move, when overwhelmed by the emotions of those affected (and on more than one occasion the tears would not stop falling), was to put oneself in their shoes. What was going through Breivik’s mind, and did he begrudge anyone or anything from his past? Victims and their families who were injured or killed? And those who were involved in the criminal or judicial process too? There are brief suggestions in “One of Us” of administrative oversight and lapses on July 22, leading to delays during the emergency response on Utøya island, though Seierstad did not engage in a fault-finding process.
An extract – describing the moment before the car bomb exploded, which killed a young lawyer just as Breivik was making his way to the summer camp – I think shows Seierstad’s narrative style:
“The man crossed Grubbegata. He was fit and agile, an active hill runner who favoured the steep mountains of Western Norway. He was thirty-two, the same age as the man who had just left the government quarter and was now on his way to the motorway tunnel. They were born in the same month of the same year; only four days separated them. Four days and infinity.
Jon Vegard Lervåg was a member of a group of law-clinic volunteers and of Amnesty International. Anders Behring Breivik was a member of the Knights Templar and Oslo Pistol Club. Jon Vegard, who was a competent classical guitarist, was looking forward to a Prince concert the following evening and to his trip home on Sunday. He was looking forward to becoming a father in February. Four days separated them, and eternity.”
“One of Us”, Seierstad wrote at the end, because it is “a book about belonging, a book about community”, and she went on to acknowledge the lives of the young individuals who were murdered, and their families who shared the stories. So not necessarily the interpretation that the Norwegian society – as I thought from the get-go – was somehow responsible for Breivik, the way he turned out, and his heinous crimes. Seierstad however did add that the book is also “about looking for a way to belong and not finding it”, for “the perpetrator ultimately decided to opt out of the community and strike at it in the most brutal of ways”. In this vein “One of Us”, even for non-Norwegians, should not only be sobering, but maybe a reminder to reflect and to act in our own societies.