This book is about Tommy and Jim, two boys growing up together in Southern Norway in the 1960s, both with difficult family circumstances. Jim has a strictly religious single mother and Tommy a violent father and a mother who deserts him and his three siblings.
The book starts with a chance meeting between Tommy and Jim many years later in their fifties when Jim is single, unemployed and with mental health problems, while Tommy is successful and wealthy. The rest of the book consists of short chapters of various incidents in the boys’ lives, gradually revealing how they came to lose touch with each other and become the middle-aged men we see in 2006.
It’s a simply written book but one with great power and ability to build up the tension as the reasons for Jim and Tommy’s estrangement are revealed. The author manages to really convey life in a small Norwegian town, and particularly the night when in temperatures of -10C the two boys go ice skating on a frozen lake.
I very much admired the way the story starts simply but soon turns into a complex tale of sibling relationships, mental illness and absent parents. Although I have read one of Petterson’s earlier novels – Out Stealing Horses – a similarly bleak tale, this book mostly reminded me of the work of Karl Ove Knausgaard, especially the third and fourth volumes of his epic My Struggle.
But this is a more complicated allusive work than Knausgaard’s and one that I felt needs a second reading to understand fully. It’s ideal for reading groups as I’m sure it would generate much discussion.
I Refuse by Per Petterson
978-0-099-58455-1|Vintage pbk Oct 2015
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