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.
Petterson 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:
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.