‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson

Echoland by Per Petterson

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 136 pages; 2017. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

Echoland, published last year, is Per Petterson’s eighth novel to be translated into English, though it was first published in 1989. Like the bulk of Petterson’s work (you can read all my reviews here), the story is framed around a character named Arvid, who has a Norwegian father and a Danish mother, and is said to be loosely based on the author himself.

Arvid has appeared in various incarnations in previous novels — from a six-year-old boy to a 43-year-old man — but in this one he is on the cusp of becoming a teenager.

There’s no real plot; the story is essentially a series of vignettes following Arvid’s day-to-day adventures on the Danish coast, where his working class family is spending the summer with Arvid’s maternal grandparents.

Here, in the small fishing community where Arvid’s mother grew up, there is a sense of troubled family history bubbling just beneath the surface.  At times the tension between Arvid’s mother and his deeply religious grandmother boils over into protestations and tears, none of which Arvid, a quiet bookish boy, fully understands, and his confusion is mirrored by his own uneasy passage between boyhood and adolescence.

…they [Arvid and his mother] were standing by the little lighthouse now, it was the middle of the day, but so dark the light was on. A lamp turned inside sending flashes out into the stormy weather and he started to cry and the light was orange and it went round and round and he was crying and he didn’t know why. He cried and felt his chest grow big and then contract to almost nothing, he grasped for breath, clenched his fists and she held his shoulder with one hand and his chin with the other and turned his head round to look into his face. He shoved her away roughly. “Don’t you touch me! I’m twelve years old. I can take care of myself!” He turned on his heel and began to run back and she followed him at a more sedate pace.

As ever, Petterson’s delicate yet straightforward prose somehow captures the kinds of emotions that are ephemeral as mist. The story has a melancholy, aching quality to it, but it’s the anxiety that ripples across every page and sometimes erupts into full-scale anger that gives the narrative a real punch.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are some funny scenes between Arvid and his new friend, the slightly older Mogens, when they go exploring beyond the fringes of the village, that helps to lighten the mood.

Echoland is a bittersweet tale of growing up and becoming aware that the world is larger — and more complicated — than yourself.

This is my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one last year in preparation for seeing the author do a reading at Festival Hall here in London. I had initially planned to take it along with me so that I could get it signed, but on the afternoon of the reading — a cold, dismal Sunday in October — I was feeling out of sorts, and while I dragged myself into town to take my seat at the event, I scampered back home as soon as it was over because I simply didn’t have the energy to queue up for the signing. Yes, I do regret it now.

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9 thoughts on “‘Echoland’ by Per Petterson

  1. I like Per Petersen, and I was impressed by this one. (It was his debut novel, such a long, long time for it to get translated, eh?)
    #NoSpoilers but what did you make of Arvid’s confused identity, did you ‘join the dots’ from Grandma’s disapproval to his ‘Italian’ appearance?

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    • Thanks Lisa. I hadn’t realised it was his first novel as I assumed Ashes in my Mouth was, but I guess that’s really a short story collection. And I also hadn’t clocked it was originally written almost 30 years ago (!!) so have tweaked my introductory sentence. (My brain is overloaded by work at the mo, not helped by lack of sleep and a heatwave that’s been going for 5 weeks and counting 🙄). And yes, not wishing to include a spoiler, I did join the dots about the suspicions surrounding Arvid’s Italian appearance, but seeing as he makes such a big deal about it at the start of the novel I wasn’t sure if he’d been told a story about it (ie your great grandfather or whoever it was was Italian) or whether that was actually true…

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      • Would I be right in thinking that whereas in Oz we are prepared for heatwaves with AC and fans and much cold refreshment in the fridge, that in London there are no such luxuries, which makes a heatwave much harder to tolerate? I hope it cools down soon, I’m dreading summer as I always do.

        Re the book, yes, it’s ambiguous, maybe I read too much into the grandmother’s hostility.

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        • You’d be right. There is absolutely no relief. The only places with air conditioning are supermarkets! Our office is a sweat box and my flat is like a pottery kiln. We are going to Northern Spain on Saturday and have joked that it’s the only place to seek relief from the heat… according to weather forecasts it looks to be about 5C cooler in Basque country!

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    • It’s a really lovely book… it really captures Arvid’s love for his mother and his conflicted feelings about wanting her comfort while also wanting to be independent.

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