Surely Norway can't be as depressing as it's depicted by its fiction writers, can it? Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" paints a bleak picture, Jo Nesbø's 'Nordic noir' crime novels are dark and brooding, Per Petterson’s "Out Stealing Horses" is full of melancholy and regret. But Petterson’s newest novel I Refuse is darker still. Just look at the book cover!
It opens in 2006 with a powerful scene of the chance meeting in early morning between Jim and Tommy on a bridge outside of Oslo, where Jim, shabbily dressed, is fishing and Tommy, in a sleek new Mercedes, is on his way to work. The two have not seen each other in over thirty years. Tommy comments obliquely about “the way things can turn out”, and then drives away.
From there the story jumps back in time to 1966 in the small town of Mørk, where the two boys share a friendship forged in part by their loneliness, isolation, lost parents, and, in Tommy's case, domestic violence. The narrative continues to shift back and forth in time between their adolescent years and the day of the bridge meeting. Some passages are told in the first person by Tommy, his sister Siri and Jim; others are told in third person, in a way that is impressionistic but not confusing. Gradually these fragments fill in the events that have shaped their lives, including one that has driven a wedge between them. In some ways they have moved in opposite directions, but both have been scarred by their pasts and share an inability to fully connect with life.
The prose is sometimes taut but sometimes rambles in long sentences (could these have been better translated?). The most powerful and unforgettable scenes occur as the two teenagers are both connected and tested by their friendship. On the other hand, it was distracting to feel as if I needed a map of the Oslo area to follow the detailed driving descriptions.
This is a sad and poignant story and you will have to judge for yourself whether hope remains at the end. But I warn you...it's Norwegian.