Per Petterson’s spare, clear-sighted novels usually feature an unorthodox male character set against the backdrop of an unsmiling Norwegian landscape.
In his new book, Petterson hasn’t veered from either topography or truculent protagonist, in this instance a teenaged boy recounting two crucial periods of his adolescence. Audun Slettern, at 13 and 18, is both strikingly singular and average for a boy his age. The awkward newcomer at school in 1965, he refuses to remove his sunglasses indoors and won’t discuss his recent move from countryside to town.
Determined to be friendless, he is disarmed by the uncomplicated overtures of classmate Arvid; the two become close companions.
Fast forward five years to 1970, and Audun’s past becomes clearer. The middle child of three, his brutal yet charismatic father had left the family several years before, precipitating the move to suburbia. Audun’s older sister Kari lives on the outskirts with her unreliable boyfriend; Audun and his mother share a small flat in town. In detached, devastating narrative style, Audun comments: “I had a brother. Last year he drove a Volvo Amazon that did not belong to him into the River Glomma and drowned.”
Untapped grief for this lost tearaway, Egil, dominates, as does the fear that out in the black forest his departed father lurks. It adds a supernatural element to a work so fixed in the moment, so practical in its economy of prose.
Audun reads, smokes, broods, drinks coffee and listens to Jimi Hendrix. He and Arvid talk of Jack London and Hemingway, symbols of masculinity whose writing Audun yearns to emulate. An ugly coil of anger manifests itself repeatedly through fights and opposition to authority. One stunning passage describes the 13-year-old Audun’s formative, stolen summer week on a farm, abruptly terminated by his father.
Restless, Audun leaves school: an apprenticeship at a printworks with its dangerous shifts and tensions between workers is powerfully described. “The gloom suits me fine,” Audun states, and although the story is specific to rural Norway at the end of the Sixties, the unfocused energy, repressed emotion, all “cold candles and burnt-out torches” are palpably of the present.