Book review: One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad

This book is a journalistic masterpiece. At the same time, it was extremely hard to read. It’s also the most difficult book I’ve ever tried to review.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway is not just an account of Breivik’s terrorist attack on 22nd July 2011, but also details Breivik’s life until that point and the trial which followed.

Part of the difficulty in reviewing this is that I read it in translation. Sometimes when reading a translated work I can forget that it wasn’t written in English. With this book, I felt conscious of it at several points while reading. The text was so journalistic and pared back that the sentence structure took on an added significance. Sometimes it just felt a little clunky, a bit dry. There were turns of phrase which were given narrative importance and emphasis which I’m sure would have had more impact in the original Norwegian than they did in English. 

I’m aware how churlish the above paragraph sounds. This is another difficulty for the reviewer – how to treat a book which deals with such a tragedy? It seems somehow petty to pick at minor literary details when the greater discussion is of matters of life and death. Professional reviews of One of Us focus on the book’s subject matter, rather than analysing it in its own right as a literary work. 

I suppose some of my discomfort when it comes to writing this review stems from my own fear of succumbing to a ghoulish voyeurism. When a book handles such an atrocious crime is it ethical to quibble about its entertainment value? 

I’m not sure about the correct answers here, but I’m going to do my best to evaluate One of Us and share my thoughts on its handling of this sensitive subject matter. 

 One of Us has been compared, in scope and in its attention to detail, to Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. I haven’t read Mailer’s Pulitzer prize winning epic, but I have read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another classic of this genre. While In Cold Blood skipped over depicting the actual murder of the Clutter family, One of Us opens with a chilling in media res description of part of the massacre on Utøya island. It then backtracks to begin its forensic examination of Breivik’s personality and the familial, societal and political forces which helped mould him. 

The detail presented here is exhaustive. This dive into Breivik’s life prior to the massacre lasts for around 250 pages, or half of the book. Much of it was interesting but I did feel that a lot of this detail was included for the sake of journalistic completeness. In my opinion, the objectivity of the book wouldn’t have suffered if some authorial judgement had been used to filter and summarise the events of Breivik’s childhood and adolescence. A clear picture of Breivik does emerge from the material presented. He’s represented as a strange and lonely character, a misfit who failed to find a place within society.  (And whom society perhaps failed in turn, as a small child in a home strongly suggested to be abusive.) 

I haven’t read enough books dealing with true crime to know if this is unique, but one of the standout features of the book was its determination to make this as much the story of the victims as of Breivik. To achieve this, Seierstad interspersed material on Breivik with chapters recounting the lives of the victims and their families. This was obviously a laudable aim, but I found the execution a bit clumsy structurally. I think I would have preferred these chapters collected together and even expanded, rather than mixed somewhat randomly between the parts on Breivik. That said, even in its current form, these chapters were undoubtably powerful. By the time Breivik kills these children, the reader feels that they know them and their families intimately. It’s almost unbearably tragic to read, and I applaud Seierstad for painstakingly telling us about the teenagers’ relationships, ambitions, football skill, etc so that we can’t lose sight of just how atrocious the destruction of their young lives was. 

As the book goes on, its attention to detail and keen observation of Breivik lends it a true sensation of horror. The level of detail which was at times dull in the first half becomes excruciating in the second half. I nearly cried in public several times. This latter half of the book, handling the attack and its aftermath, is fascinating and horribly painful in equal measure. I do wonder whether the rather dry set-up was calculated. To return to the question of voyeurism, it’s almost as if Seierstad was saying – ok, here’s the macabre description of murder you came for. But first you’ve got to wade through pages and pages on Breivik’s teenage years as a graffiti artist. 

The question of Breivik’s sanity was crucial to the trial and is dwelt on in the book. He was deemed accountable in the end and given the maximum sentence allowed by law – just 21 years. The discussion of the sentence given is one of the few places within the text where any explicit editorial comment came through. The emergency service response to the attack was also (rightly) given short shrift by Seierstad. Throughout most of the book though, the narrator is deliberately absent. While In Cold Blood felt distinctly novelistic, One of Us was obviously striving for neutrality on questions such as Breivik’s accountability. And yet the choices made in its composition (focus on the failings of social services who had early dealings with Breivik’s mother, inclusion of chapters on the victims, detailing of the missteps made by police on the day of the attack) are all themselves purposeful and reveal Seierstad’s opinions. 

I think that’s absolutely fine. Knowing where the author stands doesn’t for me detract at all from the work involved here. I initially thought that much of the material dealing with the massacre had to have been invented, in the vein of In Cold Blood. I was totally wrong – the author’s note at the end details the huge amount of primary sources available to Seierstad, ranging from coroner’s reports and police interviews to phone recordings and accounts by survivors. Her commitment to the research involved was clearly meticulous. 

The final page of the book’s 500+ also offers some modest editorialising. Seierstad posits that this is a story of belonging, and what happens to individuals who have no sense of belonging anywhere. On this basis she argues for the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive Norway.  

The part of this powerful book which really stands out to me isn’t anything to do with Breivik’s rather pitiful life or terrible crimes. It’s not the horrendous actions he undertook or anything to do with his political motivations. I found one small vignette Seierstad included utterly heartbreaking – the tale of a teenage immigrant to Norway, Mehdi, whose only friend (Simon) was killed on the 22nd of July 2011. I wonder where he is now – Seierstad doesn’t know or doesn’t tell us. 

One of Us was a difficult and at times far from enjoyable read, but stands as a remarkable achievement in nonfiction.

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