Tag Archives: Norway

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.


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Scandanavian Literature

Review: Dancing in the Dark-My Struggle Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I received an advanced review copy of this book from Archipelago Books through NetGalley. It was published in the original Norwegian in 2009 and has been translated for this English edition by Don Bartlet.  Knausgaard has published his autobiographical novel in six parts and this is the fourth installment that has been translated into English.  You do not have to read the other books in the series first as this book stands on its own.  But after you do read Book 4 you will be clamoring to pick up the first three.

My Review:
My Struggle 4Music. Sex. Drinking.  These are the three main topics on eighteen-year old Karl Ove’s mind at any given time.  He has just graduated from high school, or gymnas as it is called in Norway, and has accepted a temporary teaching position at a school in a remote fishing village in the northern part of Norway.  Karl Ove wants to get as far away from his hometown as possible and he also wants the opportunity to write since this is what he forsees as his future career.

The first third of the book deals with Karl Ove’s settling into his new home in Norway and trying to teach a variety of subjects to middle school students.  He feels a certain sense of freedom while he is living by himself and earning his own way for the first time in his life.  A lot of music is mentioned in the book as it is one of his main areas of interest.  Karl Ove writes music reviews for a local paper and begins to appear on a radio program that discusses music. If you are nostalgic for pop and rock music from the mid to late 1980’s you will appreciate the discussion of Karl Ove’s collection of albums.

A large part of the book is a flashback to Karl Ove’s last two years in high school where he slowly begins to distance himself from life as a child, an existence that is constantly reliant on his parents.  A large part of his growing up has to do with the separation of his parent’s and the dissolution of their marriage.  Karl Ove’s father is a distant, cold and harsh man who beat and scared his children when they were younger.  Now that he father has moved out of their home, Karl Ove attempts to get beyond the issues he had with his father in the past and become his own independent man.

One incident in the book, in particular, that demonstrate Karl Ove’s struggles as he is coming of age is his attempt to keep in touch with his father.  One day when he has gotten out of school and has nothing to do he pays a surprise visit to his father.  When he arrives, his father is cold and distant and scolds Karl Ove for not calling first.  As a sixteen-year-old high school student, Karl Ove still craves a relationship with his father, despite their dysfunctional past.  Reading about his father’s reject of him in such a heartless way is distressing but this incident does not deter Karl Ove from still trying to forge a relationship with this undeserving and cruel man.

One of the things that surprised me is the amount of autonomy he has throughout the book.  His mother works full-time as a teaching nurse so he comes and goes as he pleases.  He only visits his father, who has developed a rather severe drinking problem and has gotten remarried, once in a while. Karl Ove starts to smoke and drink in excess, to the point where he blacks out and loses large chunks of time.  His mother finally catches on to how serious his problem has become and she throws him out of their home.  This has the opposite effect she intended and instead causes him to go on a drinking and hash binge for days on end.   Throughout the book I worried for him, I was concerned that no one keeps a better eye on this sixteen-year-old who is really still a boy and I felt his constant, underlying sadness and loneliness

Karl Ove also wants, more than anything, to be in some sort of a relationship with a girl but the situations involving his romantic life never quite work out.  He is desperately in love with a girl named Hanne who pays Karl Ove quite a bit of attention to the point of leading him on, but she never actually intends to start a relationship with him.  It seems that all of his friends have girlfriends, or are at least having sex, and Karl Ove is very self-conscious of the fact the he is still a virgin.  Time and again in the book he has an opportunity to be with a girl, but he has a severe case of premature ejaculation.  It is tragic that he is too young and immature to understand that patience and the right woman would solve all of his problems.

The style of the book is very unusual and does not read like a traditional novel.  The experience of feels more like perusing the very detailed diary of a teenage boy; there are minute descriptions of what he eats, where he goes, and his daily activities. I did not find this boring or mundane, but instead it helped to vividly set the scene of his life for me.  The only completely developed character in the novel is Karl Ove himself.  He has interactions with countless people but what he describes is his own reactions to them and their effect on him; we never get to know other characters that show up in his life in any depth.

What I enjoyed, and even admired the most about this autobiographical novel is that the author’s experiences are raw, unfiltered and completely honest.  Knausgaard could have censored some of his feelings and most embarrassing moments.  I think that by laying it all out there for the world to see is brave and makes MY STRUGGLE BOOK 4 an absorbing and emotional read.

About The Author:
Karl OveKarl Ove Knausgaard was nominated to the 2004 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize & awarded the 2004 Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He made his literary debut in 1998 with the widely acclaimed novel OUT OF THE WORLD, which was a great critical and commercial success and won him, as the first debut novel ever, The Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He has since received several literary prizes for his books.


Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation