Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Men in My Situation’ by Per Petterson (translated by Ingvild Burkey)

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 291 pages; 2021. Translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.

The light from inside sifted gently down over the snow on the pavement, and the street lamps turned everything yellow and each street lamp had its own circle and no circle touched another and between them there was silence.

The King of Melancholia returns with what may possibly be his best novel yet.

Men in My Situation features many of Per Petterson’s trademarks:

✔️ A solo man, with working-class roots, a bit down on his luck and prone to introspection

✔️ A focus on past relationships (both sexual and familial) and how they have panned out

✔️ An emphasis on place

✔️ An exploration of grief, occasionally manifesting in violence

✔️ Loneliness, regret, melancholia and depression

And it’s written in prose, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey, that is assured, eloquent and evocative, ripe with detailed and often beautiful descriptions of snow-filled landscapes and city streets.

Arvid is adrift

In this tale, we meet a recurring character, Arvid, who is 38 and newly divorced. (He was a teenager in Echoland; 37 and heading for divorce in I Curse the River of Time; and 43 in In the Wake.)

He’s a mildly successful writer (enough to be recognised by people in the street, anyway), but things aren’t going particularly well for him. He’s alone and adrift, desperately missing his three daughters, and clinging to the routines that mean something to him: driving his old Mazda around the quiet streets of Oslo (and sometimes sleeping in the car), going to bars and drowning his sorrows in booze, and occasionally going home with women for meaningless sex.

The breakdown of his marriage haunts him. He knew things were getting bad when he and his wife, Turid, stopped going to bed at the same time — “We’d become like magnets with identical poles turned towards each other, plus to plus, minus to minus” —  and started quarrelling more about silly things that “suddenly blew out of control”:

I didn’t understand why and wanted it to stop, I wanted to get away from it, but I didn’t know how, we were like two bicycle wheels stuck in a tram rail, and it felt ominous because she was unafraid whereas I wasn’t, and a trapdoor beneath my feet might open any second.

But overshadowing this is a fog of grief: a year earlier his parents and two brothers died in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster and he’s wrestling with how to process this loss. (Petterson himself lost his mother, father, young brother and a niece in the disaster, and it’s a recurring episode in the Arvid novels.)

Arvid measures time in the distance between his wife leaving him and the ship burning.

I thought, how does one measure grief, is there a yardstick for grieving, is there any difference, say, between grieving for one person as opposed to two or three persons, or even four, as in my case, did all this fit on a yardstick, or could the level of grief register as on an instrument, such as a Geiger counter, and the closer the instrument got to the full power, the full height, the full number, the faster and louder the instrument would emit its familiar beep. And how was I to know when there was grief enough, and if grief was liquid like melting silver, could one then pour the grief into a litre measure and conclude, under these circumstances, eight decilitres ought to be sufficient, and let the silver congeal hard and shiny not far below the rim. How was I to know.

Deeply introspective narrative

There’s not much of a plot, but this is not unusual in Per Petterson’s work. Instead, we get a deeply introspective narrative about a divorcé grappling with fatherhood and newfound circumstances, of a man who is acutely aware of his weaknesses but not confident enough to overcome them, someone who wants to be a better person but isn’t sure it’s worth the effort.

He fills in his time trying to repair the relationship with his young daughters — his eldest no longer wants to spend time with him, and she’s convinced her young siblings likewise — and getting back in touch with his old childhood friend, Audun. (Petterson fans will recognize Audun from an earlier novel, It’s Fine by Me.)

There’s a terrifying sequence in which he takes his daughters on a road trip, only to run off the road doing a dangerous, unthinking manoeuvre in a pique of anger, and while no one is injured, Arvid is aware that if his wife finds out his access to the girls may be taken away. The slide into desperation, of keeping secrets from his ex-wife and of behaving recklessly, becomes more acute as the story progresses.

But it’s not all predictable. Arvid’s melancholia and his tendency toward self-pity come into sharp relief when he discovers that his eldest daughter has health issues. This forces him to play the role of a caring, dedicated father, someone reliable and trusting, someone who can rise above “men in my situation” to do something positive and helpful.

The book ends on an optimistic note.

For another take on this novel, please see Joe’s review at Roughghosts.

Book lists, Book review

4 new books by favourite authors

As much as I try NOT to read a constant diet of shiny new books it’s sometimes difficult when there are so many tempting new books being advertised on social media and being reviewed by bloggers. My wishlist seems to grow exponentially by the day!

To make matters worse, four of my favourite writers are due to have new novels published this year: John Banville (Irish), Damon Galgut (South African), Per Petterson (Norwegian) and Colm Tóibín (Irish).

Here’s some more information about the books, arranged in order of publication date and with details lifted from publisher websites:

‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut
Publication date: June, in UK and Australia

“The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled. The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.”

‘Men in my Situation’ by Per Petterson
Publication date: August, in UK and Australia

“In 1992 Arvid Jansen is thirty-eight and divorced. Turid has left with their three girls, slipping into her young, exuberant crowd of friends, ‘the colourful’, and a new house with no trace of their previous life together. More than a year has passed since the tragic accident that took his parents and two of his brothers. Existence has become a question of holding on to a few firm things. Loud, smoky bars, whisky, records, company for the night and taxis home. Or driving his Mazda into the stunning, solitary landscape outside of Oslo, sleeping in the car when his bed is an impossible place to be, craving a connection that is always just beyond reach. At some point, the girls decide against weekend visits with their dad. Arvid suspects that his eldest daughter, Vigdis, sees what kind of a man he really is. Adrift and inept, paralysed by grief. And maybe she’s right to keep her distance from his lonely life. Is there any redemption for a man in his situation? When Arvid has lost or been left by all those dear to him and feels his life unravelling, perhaps there is still a way forward.”

‘The Magician’ by Colm Tóibín
Publication date: September, in UK and Australia

“The Magician tells the story of Thomas Mann, whose life was filled with great acclaim and contradiction. He would find himself on the wrong side of history in the First World War, cheerleading the German army, but have a clear vision of the future in the second, anticipating the horrors of Nazism. He would have six children and keep his homosexuality hidden; he was a man forever connected to his family and yet bore witness to the ravages of suicide. He would write some of the greatest works of European literature, and win the Nobel Prize, but would never return to the country that inspired his creativity. Through one life, Colm Tóibín tells the breathtaking story of the twentieth century.”

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville
Publication date: October, in UK and Australia

“When Dublin pathologist Quirke glimpses a familiar face while on holiday with his wife, it’s hard, at first, to tell whether his imagination is just running away with him. Could she really be who he thinks she is, and have a connection with a crime that nearly brought ruin to an Irish political dynasty? Unable to ignore his instincts, Quirke makes a call back home and Detective St John Strafford is soon dispatched to Spain. But he’s not the only one on route: as a terrifying hitman hunts down his prey, they are all set for a brutal showdown.”

Are there any books here you would be keen to read? What books are you looking forward to this year?

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘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, which 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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working-class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as a foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘It’s Fine By Me’ by Per Petterson


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.

Character-driven storyline

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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘I Curse the River of Time’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 233 pages; 2010. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with Per Petterson.

In recent years Per Petterson has become one of my favourite writers. There’s something about his deeply melancholic style that I find attractive. Those of his novels that have been translated into English — To Siberia (1996), In the Wake (2000) and Out Stealing Horses (2003) — are all desperately bleak, but they are also exceptionally truthful in their depiction of the human condition and the relationships within families.

I Curse the River of Time, first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010, is no exception.

Mother-son relationship

The story is essentially a portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship. It is narrated by the son, Arvid, a former Communist, looking back on events that “happened quite a few years ago”.

These events occur over a few days in the winter of 1989. The time-frame is important: across Europe, Communism is in turmoil — the Berlin Wall has collapsed — and this mirrors Arvid’s personal life, where much is coming to an end.

He is 37, has two daughters aged 10 and seven, and is heading for divorce.

There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.

Because of this, he is avoiding his mother, “for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life”. This suggests that she may be judgemental or that she will be upset by this news. But little does Arvid know that his mother has personal problems of her own — she has just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Jutland escape

His mother, a Dane by birth, has lived in Norway for 40 years. Married to a man 14 years her senior, with whom she has four adult sons — one of whom has died — she wants to spend a few days alone. She books a ferry ticket to Denmark and heads to a town in the far north of Jutland, where she grew up.

When Arvid is told of her trip, he decides to visit her at the summer house where she will be staying. He is angry at his brothers, who passed on the news because they haven’t bothered to make the effort to “offer her the appropriate words of comfort” before she went away.

This gives us an insight into Arvid’s personality: he cares deeply for his mother, even though he is never sure whether she loves him as much in return. And it also reflects his inability to process his anger — his story is littered with violent incidences — and deal with emotions.

Over the course of a few days in the summer house, Arvid reflects on events that have brought him to this point in time. His memories, which reveal themselves out of chronological order, cover everything from his student days, his romances, his summer holidays as a child, his decision to quit college and become an “industrial worker” in line with his Communist beliefs.

Parental issues

The figure which looms large in his story is his mother, whom he adores even if he never quite comes out and says it. The pair have a shared love of books (“she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag”), films and cheap whisky.

But Arvid has niggling doubts about her love for him. He is convinced she thinks him “too fragile”, that he is not good enough for her, that she loves his next younger brother — the one who died, aged 27, in tragic circumstances — more than him. When he verbalises this he sounds childish, immature. On more than one occasion I wanted to tell him to grow up — and get over it.

He has issues with his father, too, although he is barely mentioned. We find out nothing about him other than Arvid looks like him, a fact he cannot stand (“I did not want to look in the mirror and see my father there”).

It seems surprising that Arvid is so emotionally fragile because he grew up being told he was the only son to be planned. Instead of accepting this news as an affirmation of being wanted, he sees it as an affirmation that he is different to his siblings (“It gave me a legitimacy I could have done without”).

Inside Arvid’s head

Is there a resolution to this story? Not really. Most of what happens in Arvid’s head, and the conversations with his mother follow patterns that have been set for decades — he comes at things obliquely, she loses her temper, things blow over and they start again — but the characterisation and the emotional undercurrents of this novel are superb. There’s a brutal honesty to it all, but there are moments of humour to lighten the mood.

And Petterson’s prose style has such a beautiful musicality and rhythm to it, I would read his shopping list if I knew he’d penned it.

I Curse the River of Time is far from an uplifting novel — it will leave an ache in your throat by the time you come to the last page — but it has a quiet, understated power that makes you feel as if your life has been enriched by the simple, all-consuming act of reading it.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Denmark, Fiction, literary fiction, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘To Siberia’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 248 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Per Petterson has become one of my favourite authors in recent years.

His much-lauded Out Stealing Horses, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2006 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007, and the less well-known In the Wake, which won the Brage Prize in 2000 (before it was translated into English), are both beautiful but devastating reads. To Siberia, first published in 1996 but only recently translated into English, is similarly exquisite.

This one is set in a provincial town in Jutland, Denmark, almost “as far as it was possible to travel from Copenhagen and still have streets to walk along”. It opens in the 1930s and is narrated by a young girl growing up on a farm with her elder brother, Jesper, whom she adores because “he does things that are original”, a devoutly Christian mother, a carpenter father and a hard-working, hard-drinking grandfather.

There is little plot of which to speak, although the story could be loosely described as a coming-of-age tale, because we follow our unnamed narrator from a shy six-year-old, scared of the stone lions on a neighbour’s property, to a 20-something emotionally embittered woman embarking on a life of her own. (Confusingly, the first-person narrative is told from her perspective as a 60-year-old looking back on her life.)

The picture that emerges over the course of time is one largely of hardship as her father “works his way downwards”, moving the family into a cramped flat over a dairy when he is shut out from his parent’s farm. Here she must share a bedroom with Jesper (later, she is shocked to learn there are rumours they sleep together) and is told by her mother that she “broods too much”.

Sustaining her through this pinched existence are her dreams of Siberia, a place she longs to visit with “a sky and a light as from the dawn of the world”, and the love for her brother, a ribald, daring character, who later joins the resistance movement when the Nazis invade Denmark.

Later, as a young adult, she moves to Copenhagen and then drifts from Stockholm to Oslo, and fills her days working, first as a telephone operator and later a waitress, and ekes out her nights in grim promiscuity. There is a definite sense of loss, of melancholia, of deep aching sadness, perhaps best described by the absence of Jesper in her life:

He has gone to Morocco, and I have come to this town at the very end of the
fjord where everything was gray and green on the way in on the boat,
and then nothing but gray for days and weeks.

The ending is an unbearably sad one, typical of Petterson’s previous novels, and even writing this review, some three weeks after having read the book, my throat aches with the thought of it. To Siberia is a beautiful, bleak novel, one that makes you see the world in a slightly different light after you reach the final page.

As an aside, I loved reading about a part of the world with which I am vaguely familiar, especially the township of Skagen, which nestles on the northern-most tip of Jutland. Petterson’s descriptions are particularly evocative, although I have no experience of a cold so bitter it freezes the sea. You can see my own photographs of the region here and here and here.

Books of the year

My favourite reads of 2008, part 2

Books-of-the-yearYesterday I posted my list of favourite fiction reads for 2008, which basically comprised all those novels I’d read across the year to which I’d given a five-star rating.

Today’s list is a little more chaotic, whimsical and “interesting” in the sense that these are the books that have stuck in my head long after I’ve finished reading and reviewing them.

The list comprises a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and is presented here in alphabetical order by book title:

‘Digging Up the Dead: Uncovering the Life and Times of an Extraordinary Surgeon’ by Druin Burch (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Digging Up the Dead looks at the life and times of arguably the world’s first famous surgeon, Astley Cooper (1768-1841), whom Burch — himself a medical doctor — describes as vain, egotistical, nepotistic and “rather wonderful”.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is more than just a biography of a man, it’s the history of modern medicine and how we owe so much to the surgeons who went before. I can no longer walk past any of the big London hospitals — Guys, St Thomas’ — without thinking of this remarkable book.

‘The Fifth Child’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1988)
From my review: ‘The Fifth Child is billed as a horror story but it’s not from the Stephen King school of horror — it’s slightly more subtle but oodles more menacing because of it.’
Why I chose it for this list: It deals with so many big themes — is there such a thing as evil? does class structure affect our family lives? to what extent should a mother take responsibility for her child’s misbehaviour? is it responsible to have so many children when you must rely on help to raise them? — that you can’t help but cogitate on it long after you’ve read the last page.

‘Forever’ by Pete Hamill (fiction, 2004)
From my review: ‘Forever is part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable. It spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan.’
Why I chose it for this list: It’s beautifully written for a start, but I’ve yet to come across any book that presents the history of Manhattan in such a realistic, entertaining and memorable way.

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream thoughts.’
Why I chose it for this list: There’s something about the dreamlike quality of the writing that has stayed with me, but there are certain scenes from this book that still remain fresh in my mind almost nine months after having read it. A fight between the two brothers that begins as ugly fisticuffs but ends with them laughing at the absurdity of their behaviour, is just one.

‘The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left’ by Ed Husain (non-fiction, 2007)
From my review: I never got around to reviewing this book, but it’s an eye-opening account of how Islamic extremism has taken root in modern Britain. As a teenager Husain was radicalised by extreme clerics in Tower Hamlets, East London — and his parents, traditional Muslims, were powerless to do anything. He eventually saw the error of his ways and managed slowly but surely to change his poisoned mindset.
Why I chose it for this list: If we want to understand the root causes of home-grown terrorism this book provides some quite radical (and unexpected) insights. If you listen to the media in this country you’d be forgiven for thinking so many young men turn to radical Islam because they’ve been marginalised by society and want to express their anger and resentment. Husain’s argument is exactly the opposite. He, himself, came from a respectable middle-class family and wanted for nothing. This is an imminently readable book that shows how religious extremists have flourished in a society that values freedom and tolerance. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the difference between traditional Muslims and extremists, and how a peaceful religion has been hijacked by political activists.

‘Nefertiti’ by Michelle Moran (fiction, 2007)
From my review: ‘This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.’
Why I chose it for this list: Let’s face it, I don’t want you to think I only read heavy stuff all the time. This book by first time novelist Michelle Moran is simply a fun read set during an intriguing period in human history. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the trilogy, The Heretic Queen, which has been sitting in my reading queue for months now.

‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalismby Naomi Klein (non-fiction, 2008)
From my review: This is another book I never got around to reviewing, but I’d describe it as a ‘book of our times’. It made me very angry and basically confirmed all my cynical beliefs about the current Bush administration and other money-hungry governments around the world which have their sights set on getting richer at any cost.
Why I chose it for this list: Because it turned my thinking on its head. It’s by no means a perfect book, and there were some elements I considered slightly far-fetched, but, for the most part the examples Klein uses to support her hypothesis are alarming. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next, especially given the current state of the world economy.

‘The Summer Before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing (fiction, 1973)
From my review:The book is incredibly moving in places — you really get to feel Kate’s pain and anguish as she comes to terms with growing older. But it’s Lessing’s wry and insightful observations of a woman’s sexuality — and of its often unspoken importance to a woman’s sense of self — that this book comes into its own.’
Why I chose it for this list: This story resonated very strongly with me, probably because I’m almost the same age as the main character and know what it’s like to become invisible as you get older. There are certain scenes from this book which have stayed with me.

‘The Unknown Terrorist’ by Richard Flanagan (fiction, 2008)
From my review: ‘Set in Sydney across five hot, summer days, the story follows Gina Davies, a lap dancer known as the Doll, on the run from the law having been accused of helping to plot a terrorist attack. But Gina is entirely innocent. Her “crime” has been no more than having a one-night stand with an attractive stranger, Tariq, who is blamed for three unexploded bombs found at Homebush Olympic Stadium the previous day.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is the first novel I’ve read in a long time that presents the modern world as it really is and does it in such a way that it feels almost too real. Rampant consumerism, the media out of control and the politics of fear, all dished up in one delicious book that I could not put down.

‘Things the Grandchildren Should Know’ by Mark Oliver Everett (memoir, 2008)
From my review: ‘Not only does Everett lose a succession of family members under various tragic circumstances — his father of a heart attack aged just 51, his mother of lung cancer, his drug-addicted older sister of suicide and his air stewardess cousin in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 — but many of his friends and colleagues in the music business have also died before their time.’
Why I chose it for this list: This is one of those books that makes you thankful for what you have and not what you don’t have. It’s a book about survival — and for someone with a pessimistic streak as strong as mine it’s a brilliant example of what you can achieve if you put your mind to it. Plus, I have rather fond memories of attending the book launch at St James’ Church in London.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘In the Wake’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 202 pages; 2007. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Judging by the amount of Scandinavian crime fiction hitting our shelves these days, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that this was the only genre Scandinavian writers were capable of creating. Thank goodness, then, for Per Petterson. This Norwegian writer has penned one short-story collection and six novels, although only two have been translated into English (a third, In Siberia, is due out at the end of the year) and they are as far from crime thrillers as you can imagine.

The beautiful, introspective Out Stealing Horses was published to critical acclaim in its native Norway in 2003, but it didn’t hit the big time until it was translated into English and scooped the Independent Foreign Prize for Fiction in 2006. Suddenly Norway’s best kept literary secret was out of the bag and English-language readers like me clamoured for more. Cue the translation of In the Wake, a novel that predates Out Stealing Horses by three years, but which feels more accomplished and — if it is possible — more touching, more painful and more despondent.

Like Trond in Out Stealing Horses, In the Wake features a male narrator trying to come to terms with painful events from his past.

The book opens with Arvid, a 43-year-old divorced father of two, standing outside a bookshop where he once worked. He is confused and disoriented, and can’t understand why his hands are grazed and why it hurts so much to breathe. And then he remembers the one tragic event that he has been trying to escape for the past six years: the deaths of his parents and two younger brothers in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster…

What follows is a story told stream-of-consciousness style as Arvid pieces together those missing years and looks back on the strained relationship he had with his father, a very physically fit and strong man who had little respect for Arvid’s love of books and writing, and his older brother, the only member of his family who was not on board the boat that fateful night.  (Tellingly, his mother and his two younger siblings rarely enter his thoughts).

When his 46-year-old brother announces he’s about to get a divorce and then tries to kill himself by drinking “a bottle of port and a hundred Sarotex”, Arvid is forced to confront the reasons why the two have grieved in different ways. This memory, of the pair sailing in a boat with their father, says it all:

I turned and stood there looking straight across the fjord to Oslo while the ice floe gently rocked, and my brother was staring stiffly back at the rowing boat and at my father, and I think that is the difference between my brother and me, that in spite of size and age he always looked back while I looked straight ahead, and this is the way it has always been.

And this account, told to a nurse, sums up how the two brothers viewed the tragedy from different perspectives:

And then I tell her of the discussions we have had since then, my brother and I, about how they died, my two younger brothers and my mother and my father, and I have said it again and again, that they were asleep and died from the smoke and never knew what happened to them, while he is convinced they were awake and tried to get out, and then could not because the flames were so fierce at that particular place in the boat and the smoke was so thick, and he cannot stop thinking about what their thoughts were just then, what their last feelings were, and I have said it does not do any good to go on thinking like that.

In the Wake is a book about loss — loss of family members, loss of dreams, loss of self — and how we handle it. But it’s also a book about family relationships, in particular between fathers and sons, and how these bonds, good and bad alike, do not break, even in death.

It’s a quietly devastating read, but one that is not without hope. Arvid may be reclusive but there are touching scenes in this book — between the Kurdish neighbours he befriends and the attractive woman across the road with whom he develops a small love affair — that indicate he is ready to tentatively re-enter the land of the living after a long period of bereavement. And there’s the odd witty scene that breaks up the unbearable sadness of the novel.

I found myself unable to stop thinking about this book whenever I put it down. Despite the narrative comprising an endless succession of disjointed memories, Petterson manages to weave them together seamlessly, so you feel like you have entered someone else’s dream-thoughts. That is quite a stunt to pull off, though whether this says more about Petterson’s writing style or Anne Born’s translation, I do not know. Whatever the case, In the Wake is a highly recommended read and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 264 pages; 2006. Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

This is a delightful, thought-provoking and ethereal book by an author the Independent describes as “one of Norway’s finest living writers”. It’s a relatively simple story tinged with nostalgia about a 67-year-old man’s remembrance of things past and how events in the summer of 1948 shaped the rest of his life.

The narrator, Trond, is a widower who has lost touch with his children. He is living the life of a recluse in an isolated part of Norway with his faithful dog Lyra. By a strange coincidence his only neighbour, another elderly man, whom he stumbles upon by chance, is someone he has not seen since that fateful summer. This brings some painful memories to the surface and forces Trond to recall what happened all those years ago.

Back in 1948 Trond and his father left Oslo to spend a summer in a cabin in the woods not far from the Swedish border. Here Trond hangs out with Jon — a tearaway also holidaying in the area with his family — who encourages him to go ‘out stealing horses’, a euphemism for riding the local farmer’s horses without permission. But then tragedy strikes Jon’s family and the rest of the summer becomes a turning point in 15-year-old Trond’s life.

Through a series of painful but carefully realised incidents, Trond discovers what it is to grow up, to fall in love, to grieve. He also finds out that life is fragile and not always as straightforward as it seems, that adults sometimes keep secrets and that those closest to you can also betray you.

Essentially, this is a coming-of-age story, but it is written so eloquently and with such a love for Nature — the descriptions of woods, waterways and the changing seasons is pure magic — that the reader falls under a kind of spell and does not want the story to end. I found it a deeply atmospheric read that transported me to another time and place as if I, too, was out in the Norwegian countryside rowing down the river or riding horses bareback through the forest.

Having read this book in one sitting, I can see why Out Stealing Horses earned Per Petterson this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It’s a truly accomplished and evocative read.