Clear, colloquial and unadorned, the writing doubtless owes something to Hamsun and maybe just as much to Hemingway, who is invoked in the text a couple of times…And at moments when a lot of American prose seems fizzy and over-rich, the sentences in I Curse the River of Time go down like an eye-watering shot of aquavit. They evoke a landscape, mental and otherwise, that while a little wintry and severe, is appealing precisely because it's so off the beaten track.
The New York Times
Two-thirds of the way through Per Petterson's new novel, its narrator, 37-year-old Arvid Jansen, finds himself up a tree. Perched on a branch of an old pine overhanging his family's summer house, Arvid mulls a scheme for bridging the emotional gap that divides him from his mother. It's not going to work, this scheme, but never mind. Petterson…is a master at putting parents and children up the kind of psychic trees from which…they can't climb down. The stubborn mysteries of family conflict are his subject, and he evokes them in a voice whose straightforwardness belies its subtlety.
The Washington Post
Per Petterson's slender, subtly incisive new novel…lives in the liminal, nauseating space where you don't know who you are anymore or what will become of you. Arvid, like many of Petterson's narrators, is much more astronaut than cowboy, an emotional rocket man floating through a life he no longer understands, searching the past for clues. It sounds bleak, but instead it's rather dreamy and tenuous, like the thoughts one has in the brief moment between sleeping and waking. Clean sentence after clean sentence, Petterson conveys both the melancholy and the demi-pleasurable sensation of being fundamentally untethered.
The New York Times Book Review
Like an emotional sucker punch, the latest novel from the much-acclaimed Petterson (a prequel to 2006's In the Wake) examines lives half-lived, ending, and perhaps beginning anew. In 1989, 37-year-old Arvid Jansen's marriage is ending and his mother is dying of cancer. Hoping to leave his marital woes behind in Oslo, Jansen follows his Danish-born mother to her home country, to the beach house where the family spent summers. During the ferry ride and the following days in Denmark, Jansen recalls his childhood bond with his mother and his decision, after two years of college, to leave school and join his fellow Communists in the factories. He struggles with his commitment to communism--the title is a line from a poem by Mao--and with his place in his family and in the larger world. Thankfully, there is neither overt sentimentalism nor a deathbed declaration of love between mother and son, but Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“Like an emotional sucker punch...Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work.” The Denver Post
“Petterson's prose contains a sneaky, insidious beauty...his sentences can stop your breathing and leave tears welling up...[and] his readers will find that they're in the hands of a master whose quiet, unforgettable voice leaves you yearning to hear more.” Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe
“I Curse the River of Time hits the mark....It's complex and rich...a subtle meditation on the long, unstoppable river of time” Heller McAlpin, NPR's "Books We Like"
“Petterson's writing has returned to its artistic home, and what's more, returned to it with greater maturity and confidence....Here he is absolutely courageous.” Rachel Cusk, USA Today
“An emotional suckerpunch. . . . Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Petterson tells another poignant, harrowing and sometimes comic story of a man coming to terms with his dying mother, his failures (job, marriage) and his failures in the eyes of his mother: 'You squirt!' But mother and son are bound by feelings and memories for which even the word 'love' doesn't do justice.” The Wall Street Journal
“All the inevitability of life, its fragile glue and the doubts that stalk the survivors are summoned and considered in Petterson's candid, allusive fiction. There is no easy sentiment, only genuine emotional power. His tender new novel is as masterfully evocative as In the Wake and Out Stealing Horses, as gentle as To Siberia, and as exceptional as all three.” The Irish Times
“Though Petterson is often compared to Hemingway and Carver, he has etched a vernacular all his own. The loveliness of his prose lies not only with its distilled nature, but also in its repetitions and unexpected cadences, which infuse his style with a tenderness unseen in other spare prose virtuosos.” The Collagist
“The atmosphere of this latest from Petterson, famed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Out Stealing Horses, is as gray as the stark Norwegian landscape. Melancholy permeates every character like a dense Oslo fog. Yet, this author's gift is his ability to convey so much emotion in such a sparse prose style.” Library Journal, starred review
“[Petterson] offers here a kind of origami novel: time bends and folds around the characters so they are both young and old, healthy and sick, dead and alive. His considerable skill is evident in the clarity with which readers are immersed in each chapter--though we may leap backwards and forwards on the temporal plane, we never stumble or trip. . . . The final product is something important, lovely, and a bit mysterious.” Foreword Magazine
“[Petterson] deftly alternates between present and past. . . . His prose is elegant and spare.” Booklist
“[A] melancholy novel. . . . Fans--and curious newcomers--will snap it up.” Newsday
In Norwegian novelist Petterson's poetic, moody prequel to In the Wake (U.S. 2006), introspective protagonist Arvid Jansen spends a good deal of his time smoking, drinking, referencing book titles, and describing Scandinavian landscapes as he struggles to deal with his mother's cancer, his divorce, and the demise of communism. Written in highly descriptive prose, the story is centered in 1989 Oslo but skips back and forth through time, often without definitive shifts for listeners that might be clearer on the printed page. Though narrator Jefferson Mays's (The Lazarus Project) reading is well paced, the spiraling of the story, though relatively brief, may be too demanding for casual audiences, and a full picture of a man who hesitates to act and his family is never quite attained. Recommended for larger collections with an international literary focus. [The Graywolf hc received a starred review, LJ 4/15/10.—Ed.]—Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo
Read an Excerpt
All this happened quite a few years ago. My mother had been unwell for some time. To put a stop to my brothers’ nagging and my father’s especially, she finally went to see the doctor she always saw, the doctor my family had used since the dawn of time. He must have been ancient at that point for I cannot recall ever not visiting him, nor an I recall him ever being young. I used him myself even though I now lived a good distance away.
After a brief check-up, this old family doctor swiftly referred her to Aker Hospital for further examination. Having been for several, no doubt painful, tests in rooms painted white, painted apple green, at the big hospital near the Sinsen junction on the side of Oslo I always like to think of as our side, the east side that is, she was told to go home and wait two weeks for the results. When they finally arrived, three weeks later rather than two, it turned out that she had stomach cancer. Her first reaction was as follows: Good Lord, here I’ve been lying awake night after night, year after year, especially when the children were small, terrified of dying from lung cancer, and then I get cancer of the stomach. What a waste of time!
My mother was like that. And she was a smoker, just as I have been my entire adult life. I know well those night-time moments when you lie in bed staring into the dark , with dry, aching eyes feeling life like ashes in your mouth, even though I have probably worried more about my own life than leaving my children fatherless
For a while she just sat at the kitchen table with the envelope in her hand, staring out of the window at the same lawn, the same white painted fence, the same clothes lines and the same row of identical grey houses she had been looking at for so many years, and she realised she did not like it here at all. She did not like all the rock in this country, did not like the spruce forests or the high plains, did not like the mountains. She could not see the mountains, but she knew they were everywhere out there leaving their mark, every single day, on the people who lived in Norway.
She stood up, went out into the hallway, made a call, replaced the receiver after a brief conversation and returned to the kitchen table to wait for my father. My father was retired and had been for some years, but she was fourteen years younger than him and still working; though today was her day off.
My father was out, he always had something he needed to see, errands to run my mother was rarely told about, the results of which she never saw, but whatever conflicts there had been between them were settled long ago. There was a truce now. As long as he did not try to run her life, he was left in peace to run his own. She had even started to defend and protect him. If I uttered a word of criticism or took her side in a misguided attempt to support the women’s liberation, I was told to mind my own business. It is easy for you to criticise, she would say, who have had it all handed to you on a silver plate. You squirt.
As if my own life were plain sailing. I was heading full speed for a divorce. It was my first; I thought it was the end of the world. 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.