Child Wonderby Roy Jacobsen
*Winner of the prestigious Norwegian Booksellers' Prize*
*A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection (Holiday 2011)*
A glorious evocation of a Norwegian childhood in the early sixties by an author short-listed for the 2009 Dublin IMPAC Award
Little Finn lives with his mother in an apartment in a working-class suburb of Oslo. Life is a/b>/b>
*Winner of the prestigious Norwegian Booksellers' Prize*
*A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection (Holiday 2011)*
A glorious evocation of a Norwegian childhood in the early sixties by an author short-listed for the 2009 Dublin IMPAC Award
Little Finn lives with his mother in an apartment in a working-class suburb of Oslo. Life is a struggle to make ends meet, but he does not mind. When his mother decides to take a lodger to help pay the bills, he watches with interest as she freshens up their small apartment with new wallpaper and a sofa paid for in installments. He befriends their new male lodger, whose television is more tempting to him than his mother would like.
When a half sister whom he never knew joins the household, Finn takes her under his wing over an everlasting summer on Håøya Island. But he can't understand why everyone thinks his new sister is so different from every other child. Nor can he fathom his mother's painful secret, one that pushes them ever farther apart. As summer comes to a close, Finn must attempt to grasp the incomprehensible adult world and his place within it.
Child Wonder is a powerful and unsentimental portrait of childhood. Roy Jacobsen, through the eyes of a child, has produced an immensely uplifting novel that shines with light and warmth.
“[Roy Jacobsen] shares the blunt, gentle grace and narrative ease of his countryman Per Petterson. . . . A gloriously intelligent novel that is so rewarding, funny, sad and human that the only advice to be given is to read it.” Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
“More obviously artful than To Kill a Mockingbird, Child Wonder is as powerful and more contemporarily relevant.” Booklist
“[Child Wonder] is a wonderful, evocative yet in the end rather enigmatic story of a Norwegian childhood where things seem to be going one way but are really going another. If a story can be said to be both languid and propulsive at the same time it is this one. It is really a quiet marvel. I enjoyed it immensely.” Sheryl Cotleur, Book Passage (Corte Madera, CA)
“[Jacobsen] perfectly captures the perspective of a child who doesn't fully understand what's happening around him but knows when something's wrong. . . . The warm, subtle humor and sympathetic characters are broadly appealing.” Library Journal
“A book that makes you laugh and cry--what more can you wish for? That it does not end after 264 pages, but lasts into next week . . . Child Wonder is nothing less than a perfect masterpiece.” Dagsavisen
“I fell in love with Finn's voice. . . . Superb translation by Don Bartlett and Dan Shaw perfectly renders Jacobsen's restrained style, making us gasp with recognition when unspoken secrets of the past become unearthed. Young Finn examines his life like an anthropologist, re-imagines the incomprehensible world of adults, and reconstructs his childhood from memory, like a castle in ruins. I'm spellbound.” Aggie Zivalijevic, Kepler's Books (Menlo Park, CA)
“[An] intricately worked novel, as rich in detail and implication as it is classical in construction and stylistic restraint . . . . Jacobsen tells us in his foreword that Child Wonder is about an Oslo of 'rather rough experimentation. Before oil. Before anybody had any money at all.' This book is, even more, about the perennial sad irregularities of the human heart.” Paul Binding, The Independent
“Child Wonder is an exquisite exploration of childhood, a topic Jacobsen addresses with refreshing unsentimentality: it becomes at once a nightmare and intensely beautiful. He evokes the confusions and anxieties of a child left in the dimly lit emotional backwater of a dysfunctional household, reluctantly entangled in all the little knots that bind an unhappy family together.” Times Literary Supplement
“Eight-year old Finn and his mother lived in a lower income neighborhood in Oslo in the 1960s.Then one year everything changed: they took in a lodger, a half-sister Finn had never met came to live with them, and Finn's mother had to face some demons from her past. Narrated by Finn, the story of that year is at times funny, sad, and poignant. Beautifully written and very well translated, this is a moving tale of a young boy who learns a lot in a year. Recommended.” Alice Meloy, Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston, TX)
“Jacobsen has created a remarkable narrator [Finn] whose wry, thoughtful voice has been brilliantly rendered . . . This novel about one boy's childhood and coming of age through a specific event is beautiful in its utter normality. This is the real world. There is nothing extraordinary, no heroics. Finn is an Everybody, not quite Huck but near enough to be unforgettable. He tells his story with humour, humanity and not a little regret. . . . Jacobsen's comic instinct ripples through the narrative.” Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times
From the respected Norwegian novelist (The New Water, 1997, etc.), an artless trifle about the impact of a small girl on a family in Oslo.
It's 1961. Finn lives with his mother Gerd in a small apartment in the projects. Fate has dealt her a number of blows. Her husband, a crane operator, divorced her. A year later, he died in an accident on the job. No widow's pension for Gerd, though, for her ex had re-married. Gerd works part-time in a shoe store; money is tight. Wallpapering the apartment means they must rent a room to a lodger. Their ad draws the attention of the second wife. She's a drug addict who intends to unload her daughter on them. So their household expands by two: the lodger Kristian, a union official, and 6-year-old Linda, Finn's half-sister. Finn is the narrator and, we gather, a little older than Linda. He's a mama's boy who often breaks into tears. Linda does not make a good first impression. She smells funny, her hair is wild and she's silent as the grave. Nonetheless Finn has a jealous fit, biting his mother and breaking windows in the building. When that passes, he becomes protective of his new sister, and bristles when Kristian asks if she's retarded. But maybe she is, or at least dyslexic. We never really know, because this episodic novel is such a muddle, ill-served by a wretched translation. Nor do we know Kristian's true character, and what is transpiring between him and Gerd, who's still battling problems from her own childhood (her father abused her). At one point she visits a mental hospital. The story ends when Linda is removed to a foster home. She was, thinks Finn, "destiny, beauty and a catastrophe." She had had, we infer, a transformative effect on Gerd and Finn, though the novel has failed to make the case.
Jacobsen has a reputation. This work can only harm it.
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Child WonderA Novel
By ROY JACOBSEN
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2009 Cappelen Damm AS
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt all started when Mother and I had some decorating to do. That is, I painted the lowest part of the wall, as I was rather lacking in height – it was a struggle – while she stood on a kitchen chair and concentrated on the bit below the ceiling. At that rate it would actually take several months to finish one wall. But one evening fru Syversen came round, eyed our handiwork, her arms folded across her ample bosom, and said:
"Why don't you try wallpaper, Gerd?"
"Yes, come with me."
We followed fru Syversen, who lived across the corridor from us, I had never been in her flat before, even though we had been living opposite each other for several years, and Anne-Berit lived there, a girl of my age in the class parallel to mine, as well as her two little sisters, six-year-old twins whose names frequently came up whenever Mother had a bone to pick with me.
"Look at Reidun and Mona," came the refrain. Or she invoked Anne-Berit, who, according to fru Syversen, considered being indoors, where her bed and food were, more fun than being out in the street, where life was forged with its immense array of boards and building blocks and roof tiles strewn around between blocks of flats, and down beyond, the grass-covered fields with tree stumps and logs and uncluttered brooks and thick scrub and hidden clay paths, where you could light fires from roofing felt and lumps of tar and scraps of wood, and build two-storey huts, over which famous battles were fought, by the great and the invincible, edifices which could be razed to the ground from one moment to the next and would have to be rebuilt the day after, never by those who had torn them down. Those who build and those who destroy are never one and the same. I mention this because I was a builder, even though I was small, and I shed many a tear at finding our castles in ruins; there was talk of reprisals and bloodcurdling vengeance, but the vandals had nothing to lose save their good humour and broad smirks, already there were traces here of a division, between those who have something to lose and those who have never had and never will have plans to acquire a bean. And this world had nothing to offer Anne-Berit and her sisters, they neither built nor destroyed, they sat around the kitchen table eating supper, all day long as far as I could see, this time with herr Syversen, presiding from the head of the table in a string vest with braces hanging down over impressive bulldozer thighs that bulged over the edge of his fragile chair.
On the sitting-room walls of the Syversen family flat we saw for the first time the large-flower pattern wallpaper that would in the course of the Sixties turn Norwegian working-class homes into minor tropical jungles, with slender book shelves made of teak and supported by smart brass fittings between the lianas, and a striped corner sofa in brown, beige and white, illuminated by tiny invisible lamps mounted beneath the shelving like glittering stars. I could see the cool, faraway look in my mother's eyes, an initial girlish enthusiasm that might last for three to four seconds, I knew, before giving way to her natural timidity, which in turn would end in the expression of a realistic mind-set: "No, that's not something we can afford. We can't do that." Or: "That's no good for us." And so on. And there was quite a lot of "That's not for us" at that time for Mother and me, because she worked only part-time at the shoe shop in the Oslo district of Vaterland so that she would be at home and ready whenever I ambled in from school, and therefore she could not see herself having the means to send the lad on holiday, which she said every time spring was in the offing, as if indeed I wanted to be sent anywhere, I wanted to be at home with my mother, even in the summer; there were many others on the estate who stayed at home during the summer, although it was common for people to pretend they didn't, or at least to say they had no wish to go on holiday.
"Isn't it rather costly?" she asked, a word she only uses when we are with others; on our own we say "dear", and we mean it.
"Not at all," said fru Syversen, who was wont to read Swedish women's magazines – in contrast to Mother who read only Norwegian ones – and produced a pile of Swedish magazines off a shelf in the tropical rain forest and flicked open to an article from Malmø, summoning herr Syversen from the kitchen as she did so and instructing him to show Gerd the receipts.
I watched the big man, who chuckled Right you are, and was willingness itself, and as he lumbered over to the bookcase and pulled out a drawer hardly big enough to hold much more than a picture postcard, the strange aroma of hard-working adult man assailed my nostrils and I thought, as I always did whenever this large human being came too close to me, on the stairs and in the hobby room, that perhaps being without a father was not such a bad thing after all, even though herr Syversen was good-natured and harmless enough, and always had a pleasant remark to make about some topic that did not interest me. In other words, it was his wife who was responsible for these three well-brought-up girls, who were still sitting in the kitchen and silently chomping away while casting surreptitious glances at us.
What was remarkable was that Mother was unable to dismiss these receipts with her usual set phrases; in fact, the wallpaper was indeed not very "costly", and it had not been bought in Sweden either, but in a hardware shop, Agda Manufaktur og Myklebust, at the Årvoll Senter, next to the bank, where we did our food shopping if for some reason we did not go to Lien in Traverveien or Omar Hansen in Refstad allé and from whom, until last year, Mother had also rented a freezer until it became too dear or until we discovered we did not know what to do with it; after all, these were the years of the Berlin Wall and President Kennedy, most of all though I suppose it was the era of Yuri Gagarin, the Russian who had astounded the whole world by returning alive from certain death. It was, moreover, also the time a Mark II Jaguar cost 49,300 Norwegian kroner, a snippet of information I mention here not simply as a curiosity, but also because I saw this price, and the car, at a car exhibition at Bjerke Trotting Stadium and have never been able to forget it, perhaps encouraged by the fact that I knew we had made a down payment to the Housing Co-op of 3,200 kroner and that meant the Jaguar was worth the same as sixteen flats, a whole block, in other words. And any system that equates a car with the homes of seventy-six alive and kicking human beings of all ages, such as those living in No. 3, that's the kind of knowledge that hits you like a goods train when you are young, and it never leaves you. Think of all the smells, every family has its own smell, distinct from all others, and all the faces and voices, the estate's discordant choir, look at their bodies, clothes and movements as they sit there with their shirtsleeves rolled up, eating dinner and arguing or laughing or crying or keeping their mouths shut and chewing thirty-two times on each side. What can a Jaguar have to compare with all this? A revolver in the glove compartment? At the very least. I have thought a lot about the car, probably much too much, it was bottle-green.
"But then there's the price of the paste on top of that, you know," fru Syversen continued, as if it had occurred to her that things were going too smoothly.
"No, there isn't," herr Syversen interrupted. His Christian name, it now transpired, was Frank.
"What did you say, Frank?" fru Syversen said in a sharp tone, taking the receipts off him and subjecting them to critical scrutiny through a pair of jet-black hexagonal glasses, which had not been easy to find among the multitude of light-blue porcelain figures and oval pewter ashtrays on shelf after shelf, shelves which, in my opinion, should have been filled with books, didn't they have any books in this family? But Frank just shrugged, smiled at Mother, placed a leaden hand on my cropped head and said:
"Well, Finn, so you're the boss at home, are you?"
A remark I presumed was prompted by the green paint on my face, on my fingers and in my hair, and I must have looked as if I were doing a man's work to keep our two lives afloat.
"Yes, he's so good ..." and at that point Mother's voice broke, "I could never have managed without him."
Which is a sentence I quite like, because it did not take a lot to knock Mother off her perch at that time, even though we lived in a house of reinforced concrete with swallows' nests in the loft and neighbours who sat on their balconies leisurely drinking coffee, or stood with their heads under car bonnets for hours on end; I could read and write better than most, and her wages arrived on time, every fortnight, well, even though nothing at all ever happened here, it was as though we were forever surrounded by perils which we had been lucky enough to avoid so far because, to quote Mother, you cannot learn anything from things that never happen.
"You know, I'm not as strong as I used to be," she mumbled when something or other was looming, and then she alluded – although I never asked and she never gave an explanation – to her divorce, which I suppose must have hit her like an avalanche and was only the first of a series of small incidents in a kind of enduring misery. For this may have been the era of Yuri Gagarin, but it was by no means the era of divorce, it was the era of marriage, and only a year after the divorce he also passed away, as Mother puts it, the consequence of an accident at work. My father died in a crane accident at Akers Mekaniske Verksted, a shipbuilding company. I can neither remember him nor the divorce, nor the accident, but Mother remembers for us both, even though you can never get any specific details out of her, about for example what he looked like or what he liked doing, or did not like doing in his free time, if he had any, that is, or where he came from or what they talked about in the happy years they must have had while they were waiting for me; even her photographs she keeps close to her chest; in short, this is an era we have put behind us.
In the wake of the two disasters there followed yet another, this time connected with a widow's pension; you see, my father managed to get hitched again before he fell to his death, and to have another child, a girl, whose name we did not even know, so that now there was another widow somewhere out there, receiving the money that Mother and I should have had, and squandering it on the pools and taxis and perms.
"Well, don't ask me what's happened to them," fru Syversen said, resigned, waving the invoices for the wall-paper but not the paste. However, now at least Mother was able to round up proceedings with her simple:
"Hm, well, we'll have to see about that." And by sending the girls a goodbye smile. They stared back at us with mouths agape and three big milky moustaches. "Thank you for letting us have a peep. It's really nice."
Chapter TwoThe very next day we were in the Årvoll Senter looking at wallpaper. And that is pretty sensational, for Mother is not only beset by perils, she also takes her time to think things through; the green paint we had just wasted our money on, for example, was no mindless caprice, but the result of laborious calculations that had been going on since last Christmas when we were invited to coffee and cakes by an elderly couple on the ground floor, where all the walls had been painted a different colour from our own, and it turned out they had done it themselves, the slow way, with a brush.
On another occasion she had dropped by to pick me up from a friend's, from Essi's flat where the father had moved the door to the smallest bedroom from the sitting room out into the hall, so that Essi's big sister, who was sixteen, as good as had her own entrance, from the hallway. And now it was as if all of these considerations – along with the fact that the store we were in oozed the future, new opportunities and innovation, yes, there was a sense of purity and optimism about the paint pots and the assistants' blue coats in this shop that could move a mountain – it was as if all of this fused into one momentous conclusion.
"Right," Mother said. "Then we'll have to take a lodger after all. There's no way round it."
I glanced up at her in surprise, we had in fact discussed this before, and also come to a kind of agreement, as I understood it, that we would not take a lodger, no matter how hard up we were, for that meant I would have to give up the room I loved so much and move in with her.
"I can sleep in the sitting room," she said before I could open my mouth.
Accordingly, that afternoon we not only bought wall-paper and paste, but also composed an advertisement to insert in Arbeiderbladet, headed lodger wanted. Once again we contacted the mighty bull of a man, Frank: could Frank, who had a job on the new building sites over at Groruddalen driving a bulldozer, see his way to working evenings and move the door from our smallest bedroom into the hall, so that we would be spared having the lodger disturb our private lives with his, or her, comings and goings, not to mention a total stranger traipsing in and out of our newly wallpapered sitting room?
In other words, we were moving into exciting times.
It turned out that, as a joiner, Frank was nothing to write home about. He made a dreadful racket taking out the door. Not only that, he worked in a string vest, panted and sweated in bucket-loads, and from the first evening began to call Mother "darling".
"What d'you think, darlin', d'you wanna keep these architraves or shall I get you some new ones?"
"Depends what they cost," Mother said.
"Won't cost you much, darlin'. I've got contacts."
Fortunately, Mother wasn't put out by being called "darling" all the time. And fru Syversen made sure to drop by at regular intervals to tell us she had some food ready or to inform us that the dust cart would be late today. I have to confess that I also kept an eye on proceedings, since Mother put on lipstick and removed her curlers before every session, I had hardly any time to go out into the street. Now and then fru Syversen sent over Anne-Berit, her eldest daughter, so we stood watching the solidly built Frank humping around heavy doors and sheets of plywood. Black hair covered his shoulders and back like tufts of over-wintering grass, it poked through the holes of a faded vest more reminiscent of a trawling net than an item of clothing, and in mid-toil he would groan, "Hammer!" "Nails!" "Tape measure!", in a teasing way, as if we were his minions, it was a joy. But when the door was at last in position, and the other doorway was sealed, after a week or so, with new architraves and everything, and the question of payment was broached, Frank wanted nothing.
"Are you out of your mind?" Mother said.
"Though if you had the odd dram handy, darlin'," he said in a soft voice, as if now they shared some secret understanding following the successful completion of the job. Mother tripping around with an open purse and two or three blue five-kroner notes between her freshly varnished fingernails, plenty more where this comes from, Frank, all you have to do is ask – none of that made any difference, Frank was and remained a gentleman, and in the end all he took was two glasses of Curaçao.
"One for each leg."
But now he was gone, too, and the wallpapering could begin.
Everything went swimmingly. Again Mother was on a kitchen chair under the ceiling and I was down on the floor. The wall we had spent a whole week painting was papered in one evening. Then we spent two evenings doing all the fiddly bits around the balcony door and the large sitting-room window, and one final evening on the wall adjoining my bedroom, which was now to be the lodger's. The change was there for all to see, it was explosive, it was ear-splitting. We had not gone so far as to invest in a jungle, Mother wanted something more discreet, but we stayed well within the same botanical genre anyway, with rounded borders and flowers, like golden brown scrubland in the autumn. And when two people came round the very next day to look at the room, we were in business.
Excerpted from Child Wonder by ROY JACOBSEN Copyright © 2009 by Cappelen Damm AS . Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Roy Jacobsen is the author of several works of fiction, most recently The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, which was short-listed for the Dublin IMPAC Award. Don Bartlett is the translator of Jo Nesbø, K. O. Dahl, and Pernille Rygg. Don Shaw is a teacher of Danish to foreigners and the author of a Danish-Thai dictionary.
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Finn and his mother live in a small apartment in Oslo, in the early 60s. She works in a shoe shop and does her best to make ends meet. They are comfortable and happy. Finn's father died long ago in a crane accident but he left a little something behind.a daughter. Linda, age 6 and only a few years younger than Finn, comes to live with them. With another mouth to feed, Finn's mom takes in a quirky lodger. I'm not sure what I expected when picking this book up but I wasn't expecting to be completely charmed by Finn. Finn is a great kid. He's not the most popular kid but he's not an outcast either. Living alone with his mother has given him a sense of maturity that you don't normally see in a child his age, but he still possesses that child like wonder that makes this particular age so special. Finn's mother is firm, but wonderful and they watch out for each other quite a bit. When Linda comes to live with them, Finn is not sure what to think. Out of nowhere, this half-sister arrives and he immediately sees that she's not quite right. But there is no jealously here. Just a fierce need to protect her and Finn does exactly that. What the lodger provides, is a man's perspective. Something Finn has never had. Although he resents having to have a lodger, he learns to live with the guy because for one, he has a TV and two, he's nice company for his mother. Towards the end of the story, something happens that changes the way they live and once again they are forced to readjust to their new lives. I was a bit sad when I read the ending, but as stricken as the characters are, they accept their situation and continue to grow. There are many things that I liked about this book. It's a very simple story and because it's so simple, you can focus on the characters and they are really wonderfully drawn. I liked that Finn was not a babbling child but a child with a good head upon his shoulders. I liked that his mother was not perfect, but was a really good mom. I also loved the development of Linda, the half-sister. All in all, reading this book was a pleasant experience and reminded me of what it's like to be a child in a grown-up world.
Uhhh. Am i the only one who missed the whole point of this book? I kept plugging on, even though I lost interest early on. This is what I call reading to become depressed. The one thing I can say about this author, is that she has an impressive vocabulary.
Could reviewers NOT write a book when they give their reviews?? I'd like to find out a little by reading the book myself!