Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 208 pages; 2011. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.
Per Petterson, the master of Scandinavian melancholy returns, this time with a novel that was originally published in his native Norway almost 20 years ago but which has only recently been translated into English. That means the story predates To Siberia (1996), In The Wake (2000), Out Stealing Horses (2003) and I Curse The River of Time (2004), all of which have been reviewed rather favourably on this blog.
Growing up in the 1960s
The story is told by Audun Sletten, a first-person narrator, and is divided into four parts — the first and third when Audun is 13; the second and fourth when he is 18.
Petterson uses clever “signposting” — Jimi Hendrix’s death; mod-style haircuts; references to the The Kinks, The Hollies and the Rolling Stones — to give the story a distinctive 1960s flavour.
When the book opens Audun is attending a new school for the first time. He arrives half an hour late — “I got lost” — and is hiding behind sunglasses because he has “terrible scars around my eyes”. His headmaster introduces him to his class as follows:
“This is Audun Sletten, the new boy I’m sure you have heard about. He’s come to us from the countryside so please give him a warm welcome. He, too, likes the Beatles. Don’t mind the sunglasses. They’re glued to his nose.”
This sense of embarrassment only worsens when, later that day, his class teacher asks him to “tell us something about what it’s like where you come from”. For unexplained reasons Audun is deeply offended by the question. He gets up from his desk, grabs his schoolbag and attempts to walk out.
This reaction only begins to make sense when you learn of Audun’s early life — the things he would rather keep to himself — as the narrative unfolds in a deliberately slow and careful way, swinging between his early and late teens.
Plot-wise not much happens, although there are certain personal events — the death of Audun’s younger brother, the pregnancy of his older sister, the abandonment of the entire family by his father — that punctuate the storyline. It’s Fine By Me is more a character study of a young boy growing up and taking responsibility for himself, culminating in him leaving school and taking a job in a printing press.
And yet the story is not a passive one — there is high drama here, and many scenes of brutality and violence, all told in Petterson’s characteristic understated style.
Audun’s world is dark and lonely and often painful, but there are moments of wit and unexalted joy that lighten the mood. For every bully and mean-spirited person he meets, there are others who are generous and kind.
Not surprisingly, as the earliest of Petterson’s novels to be translated into English (there are two more from 1987 and 1989 awaiting translation) It’s Fine By Me is far from his strongest work. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing story featuring all of the Petterson quirks — charm, melancholy, loneliness, the rifts between parents and children, the bonds between siblings and friends — told in his typically restrained, some might say flat, prose. It’s probably not the book for first-time Petterson readers, but for fans it’s a fascinating look at the genesis of his award-winning critically acclaimed career.