I have actually spoken to one person who did not like Out Stealing Horses (OSH) by Per Petterson but otherwise everyone I know who has read it thought it was superb (see blog of April 28, 2008). So I was eager to follow up with reading Petterson’s earlier novel In the Wake. After reading this book I looked up the author’s biography and was totally confused. I thought that I had been reading a book of fiction but in fact it so closely follows the details of the author’s own life centered around a family tragedy that you have to wonder why he chose to write it as fiction.
Like OSH, In the Wake focuses on the family, in particular on the father-son relationship, but in this instance it is a bleak estrangement rather than the love of OSH. In the Wake doesn’t have the lyrical descriptions that were such an outstanding feature of OSH but it is nevertheless firmly rooted in the geography and place of Scandinavia. Young boys almost anywhere can climb trees for adventure but there are not too many places where two brothers can hop on drifting ice flows. Actually a better knowledge of the geography and place names of the Scandinavian countries would have been helpful - but not essential.
Petterson describes a sense of loss and abandonment. In his loneliness he almost verges on madness. He hints of a previous divorce and failed attempts as a writer. But he also reaches out to his daughter and his brother in ways that are touching and almost humorous. In the Wake does not, in my opinion, come close to OSH as literature but taken as autobiography this book takes us into the mind and sensibilities of a very talented writer – something to which we as readers of fiction rarely have access.