My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was the first I had heard of Per Petterson, much less read of him, but I can honestly say it has very quickly turned me into a fan, and I look forward to reading more.
Petterson’s overall tone as well as his more complex stylistic tweaks shone through to me despite the book being a translation, a point deserving of much appreciation as the style to me is what really lets this novel come across as something with tremendous emotional resonance and staying power.
I’ve heard Petterson’s prose described as ‘spare’, and while I want to agree with that I feel inclined to describe it more specifically as ’emotionally spare’; this has nothing to do with the emotions perhaps described in some way or in the emotions almost certainly felt by the reader (true for this reader, at least), but ‘spare’ in the sense that I never felt Petterson was trying or even wanted to be trying to browbeat be into feeling a certain way. Sure the story given and which sub-stories we’re given point us a certain direction, this is far from a feel-good novel, but these complex emotions come about through this text not by brute force but with a subtle finesse. I’ve noted the importance of this style because it’s coupled with a story that is so full of sadness and loneliness that it’d have been terribly easy to let melodrama reign supreme, providing a story so overdone it’s essentially cliche. But the spareness, the temporal shifts and other well-worked mechanisms keep the narrative almost cruelly restrained, leaving this reader feeling as far away and lonely as poor Arvid.
Speaking of our narrator, Arvid seems as far away from the events around him as the reader. His divorce, his failed socio-political aspirations, his dying mother and otherwise distant and non-existent family–Arvid seems to grasp this distance as well and works the entire novel to overcome it, seeming desperate at all turns to not necessarily find his way back to any so-called halcyon days, but to at least bridge the gap long enough to share in something meaningful with his mother before her imminent death, even while she seems to be to be looking for her own final moments in another direction, truly as distant from Arvid as he feels from her.
Petterson’s descriptions and overall narrative movements do exactly what they need do: keep things moving and stitched together without detracting from the characters and their vastly complex emotions and interactions. This is key as it’s these complexities, never resolved nicely, that fill the novel beginning to end and make it such a beautifully troubling novel to finish. I don’t believe it spoils anything to say that Petterson is a writer uninterested in happy endings and all their simplistic, annoying facades.