Review: I Refuse by Per Petterson

This title was published in the original Norwegian in 2012 and this English version has been translated by Don Bartlett.  Graywolf Press has just released the title in a paperback version.

My Review:
I RefusePetterson presents us with the story of Tommy and Jim who grew up together under difficult circumstances in the same small town in Norway.  They lose touch with one another and a chance meeting on a cold morning on a bridge brings them back together and causes memories of their troubled childhood to flood their lives.  The story alternates between 2006, when they are middle-aged men and the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when they are teenagers.  Since their early years are full of tragedy, we get the feeling that for the rest of their lives they are fighting a constant emotional battle, pushing back against the darkness and continually having to say “I Refuse” to unpleasant circumstance.

Tommy’s mother abandoned her family when he was a small boy and she left his abusive father to care for Tommy and his three younger sisters.  Tommy’s father beats his children on a regular basis by kicking them in places that do not leave visible marks.  The children console themselves by gathering in their bedroom and comparing bruises.  One day Tommy’s father goes too far and beats him so severely that Tommy’s bruises take weeks to heal.  This is the first time in the book that Tommy steps up and says “I Refuse” to his father’s abuse as  he takes a bat and breaks his father’s ankle.  After this day Tommy’s father disappears, leaving the children alone to fend for themselves in the world.

The first part of the book is full of foreboding and gloom as the author foreshadows the fate of Tommy and his siblings.  After Tommy’s father disappears, their house is boarded up and the children are dispersed among different families  Tommy’s youngest sisters, five-year-old twins, are taken to a neighbor’s house to live.  Siri, his other sister and his closest friend, is taken to town to live with another family.  Tommy himself is taken in by a man named Jonsen who is a lonely bachelor that shows pity and compassion for Tommy.  But this man is not just being kind to a troubled teenager; we learn that Jonsen has more details and intimate knowledge of Tommy’s mother and her story.

Although on the surface Jim’s story appears to be less tragic than his best friend Tommy’s, his emotional wounds run just as deep.  Jim is raised by a Christian mother who sends him to a Christian school.  She never speaks about Jim’s father and Jim has no idea who he is.  Growing up with no male role model seems just as damaging to Jim as an abusive father is to Tommy.  Jim’s emotional state is fragile and all it takes for him to have a breakdown is an innocuous incident on a ice skating outing with Tommy.  Jim’s mental illness causes him to disconnect from his best friend and the saddest part of the story is the parting of these two friends.

In the end, it is Tommy who is able to resist the evil and dark forces that have surrounded him for most of his life.  Tommy becomes a successful businessman and at the end of the book there is even a sweet love story for him.  Jim, on the other hand, who appeared to have a bit more of a stable home life is no where near as resilient as Tommy.  Jim has a successful career as a librarian but a series of panic attacks force him to take a leave of absence from his job and he spends long periods of time alone and in bed.  In the end Jim cannot muster the spirit to say “I Refuse” and he gives into the darkness.

This is my first Per Petterson book and I enjoyed every aspect of it: the writing, the characters and the alternating narrative.  I am eager to read more of his novels.  Please let me know if the comments what other Petterson books you recommend!

About the Author:
Per PettersonPetterson knew from the age of 18 that he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t embark on this career for many years – his debut book, the short story collection Aske i munnen, sand i skoa, (Ashes in the Mouth, Sand in the Shoes) was published 17 years later, when Petterson was 35. Previously he had worked for years in a factory as an unskilled labourer, as his parents had done before him, and had also trained as a librarian, and worked as a bookseller.
In 1990, the year following the publication of his first novel, Pettersen’s family was struck by tragedy – his mother, father, brother and nephew were killed in a fire onboard a ferry.

His third novel Til Sibir (To Siberia) was nominated for The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, and his fourth novel I kjølvannet (In the Wake), which is a young man’s story of losing his family in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster in 1990, won the Brage Prize for 2000.
His breakthrough, however, was Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses) which was awarded two top literary prizes in Norway – the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award.

9 Comments

Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature

9 responses to “Review: I Refuse by Per Petterson

  1. Great review, Melissa. I’d suggest Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes if you want to read more. I’ve often seen it billed as short stories but it read more like a novel in vignettes to me. Lovely clear, vibrant prose in contrast to the quiet melancholy of I Refuse.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Welcome to the magic of Per Petterson, Melissa! One of my favourite authors. I read this as soon as it came out in late 2014 (sometimes we get both the UK and the US releases in Canada). I think it’s his darkest, most complex piece yet. I haven’t read some of the earliest novels that are now available in translation, but Out Stealing Horses is outstanding. I think you will really enjoy To Siberia and I Curse the River of Time. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in my Shoes is terrific too. I read it before trying (unsuccessfully) to drag myself through Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island. In about 100 tiny pages Petterson tells a very similar tale of growing up in Norway with humour and charm.

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  3. This sounds like a great new author for me to look into! And, I have to confess that I’m a sucker for covers with trees on them. That, and the great title drew me in right away. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely review, Melissa. I’ve been meaning to read this author for such a long time. Out Stealing Horses won the IFFP some ten years or so ago, so I must get around to it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great review! I’ve started reading Out Stealing Horses a few months ago and was pulled in my the atmospheric prose. Unfortunately, I had to return the book to the library, and I have yet to get back to it. But I definitely will at some point!

    Liked by 1 person

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