Per Petterson garnered worldwide recognition in 2005 with his powerful sixth book, Out Stealing Horses, about a solitary widower whose chance encounter with a childhood friend causes him to recall the fateful summer of 1948, when he finally came to understand his father's puzzling wartime comings and goings. Also framed in crystalline language that evokes the stark, hushed clarity of the cold Scandinavian landscape, subsequent novels such as I Curse the River of Time and this one, I Refuse, continue to explore boyhood memories that cast long, dark shadows over adulthood.
The simultaneous American publication of I Refuse and Petterson's first book, a slim volume of short stories called Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (originally published in Norwegian in 1987), provides a window into the development of this spellbinding writer. While both books showcase his central preoccupations with time and memory, I Refuse brings together recurrent themes close boyhood friendships, absent or disappearing parents, and chance meetings after long separations in an intense, profoundly moving story that, unlike Out Stealing Horses or I Curse the River of Time, doesn't involve politics or history. I Refuse is about a different kind of resistance fighter and refusenik than those who fought Nazis and Communists; its characters are struggling to find their way to what matters in the bewildering drift of time, which shrouds and reveals memories like fast-moving, ever-changing cloud formations.
The novel opens with a chance encounter between two boyhood friends who have not seen each other in more than thirty years. They meet significantly on a suspension bridge connecting an island outside Oslo to the mainland, early on a September morning in 2006. Jim, "on the wrong side of fifty" and shabbily dressed in an old jacket from his teens, has been fishing under the bridge with the motley regulars. "His life was at half-mast," corroded by mental illness. "As long as I remembered to take my pills, one day slid nicely into another," he says.
But this long September day, which makes up the novel's present, is different from the start. Jim is all too aware that his yearlong medical leave from his library job is set to expire, and it's unclear what he'll do next. On his way to his fishing spot, he nearly hits a pedestrian who emerges from the dark roadside. "For a moment I thought it was my father. But it wasn't my father. I had never seen my father," he says. Two hours later, his old friend Tommy, driving a fancy new gray Mercedes on his daily commute from his affluent island home to his finance job in downtown Oslo, recognizes him on the bridge and stops. Awkwardly, he comments about how their positions have changed, and he makes matters worse by offering assistance to Jim if he needs it.
Both men are deeply shaken by the encounter. It sets in motion a series of painful recollections and reckonings that turn out to be life-changing. The novel circles back to their hometown of Mørk, sixty kilometers outside of Oslo, in the 1960s, when Tommy was the one needing aid. Since his mother's disappearance, he and his three younger sisters lived alone with their vicious father, a garbageman whose weapon of choice was his foot. Tommy periodically sought refuge with his friend Jim, who lived alone with his devoutly Christian mother, a teacher. Finally, at thirteen, Tommy struck back savagely. His broken father disappeared, and the Berggren children were divided among several foster homes. Jonsen, a kind bachelor neighbor who ran the local lumberyard, agreed to take in Tommy.
Petterson zigzags between past and present, and between sometimes overlapping first- and third-person points of view to reveal what happened to Tommy and Jim to cause such damage to their lives and their friendship. With clearly marked chapter headings to avoid confusion, the book's fractured chronology leads to a richly layered narrative that builds to a heightened pitch as pieces of each character's heartbreaking history shed light on what's at stake when they cross paths again.
Resistance and refusal are recurrent themes. When, just a few weeks before running into Jim, Tommy pays a hospital visit to Jonsen, his dying benefactor and the closest thing to family he has had, he urges the old man to fight death. "You can't refuse to die, my friend," Jonsen tells him. But for Tommy, a survivor who stopped reading fiction because he "didn't have time to be moved," refusing to capitulate is everything.
I Refuse is filled with both coincidental meetings and frustrating near-misses, which highlight the precariousness of life and love. Petterson is a writer who likes to tie up loose ends, which means we learn the fate of each character, including Tommy's mother often from surprising sources. Chance plays a large role this aspect of Petterson's sensibility recalls that of Thomas Hardy or Shirley Hazzard and (as in Hazzard's Transit of Venus) a key to what happens in the end is so subtly buried in the very beginning of the book that readers may need to circle back to understand its import. Despite the appearance of serendipity, Petterson is always in control. Without giving away too much, let me flag the way Jim describes his circumstances on the morning in which he so jarringly runs into Tommy. In Don Bartlett's smooth and I assume accurate translation, Jim says, "Back then, during Jens Stoltenberg's first red-green coalition government, I lived to the north-east of Oslo" words that imply a future from which he is recalling "back then," that September 2006 day.
Time, whose elasticity is often captured in short staccato bursts or long run-on sentences connected by series of "ands," is central to Petterson's work. Racing along the highway in his sleek Mercedes on this long day's journey into night, Tommy thinks, "How much can a normal weekday in mid-September contain, is time like an empty sack you can stuff any number of things into, does it never go just from here to there, but instead in circles, round and round, so that every single time the wheel has turned, you are back where you started." Then he realizes, "But that's not the way it was. I used to be young. I wasn't young any more. I would never be young again."
Arvid Jansen, Petterson's recurrent alter ego who also appears in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time, is first introduced as a small boy in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes. Sensitive and wise beyond his years, Arvid is already bewildered by the passage of time at the age of six. When he sees a photograph of his mother from before he was born, he's thrown for a loop: "He tried to work out what could have happened to her, and then he realized it was time that had happened and it was happening to him too, every second of the day." Petterson follows Arvid's mother's attempts to comfort him with a statement ripe for discussion: "And time withdrew to the large clock on the wall in the living room and went round alone in there, like a tiger in a cage."
Petterson's early stories contain many of the seeds of his later fiction, including Arvid's close friendship with Jon Sand, who, along with his older brother Trond, reappears in somewhat different form as Jon Sander in Out Stealing Horses. Most moving, however, is the tender portrait of Arvid's working-class parents that emerges in stories like "Ashes in His Mouth," in which young Arvid is taken into their double bed when he has nightmares in which "the house is full of ashes, there are ashes in his mouth and ashes in his pockets." Published three years before the devastating 1990 Scandinavian Star ferry fire in which 159 people were killed, including Petterson's mother, father, younger brother, and niece, there's an eerie prescience and haunting innocence to the story. But what really hits home is that even before that loss, Petterson's work was suffused with a melancholic ache for bygone times and vanishing youth a nostalgic yearning that has deepened with each transfixing book.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin