A Death in the Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Review published on March 1, 2012.Reviewed by Sara Garland

Knausgarrd is a Norwegian writer, who has published three books which have all been heralded critical successes. His first novel Out of this World  won the Norwegian Critics’ Prize, (the first time ever awarded to a debutant author), his second A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven, also widely acclaimed. A Death in the Family, although originally titled My struggle in Norway has been awarded the prestigious Brage Award and already regarded as an international best seller. It is the first of a giant autobiographical story spanning 6 novels.

What has especially captured readers interests are that his books being memoirs, reveal his  intimate and sometimes critical thoughts about his family and friends. This has created some controversy, and interpersonal tensions, but his work is being widely discussed and recounted amongst his growing army of fans.

The book opens with an extremely powerful, captivating and thought-provoking chapter depicting death and our cultural habits of how we deal with the dead:

The enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body’s innards cannot be halted. Had they tried but a few hours earlier, it have been met with immediate resistance; however everything around them is quieter now, as they delve deeper and deeper into the moist darkness…..The only thing that does not age in the face are the eyes… [in questioning why we keep corpses out of sight] – hidden in discreet rooms, always covered when moved through hospitals…transported via dedicated hospital exits and into vehicles with tinted glass…

You will stop and think, yes why do we do what we do, and consider the ritual of how we refer to, care for and dispose of the dead.

From here the book initiates its story with Karl Ove’s life as a young boy, reflecting on the unsettling relationship he had with his father, moving from time to time into his adult life; himself as a father struggling to cope and revealing his lesser engaging qualities. His father was an angry man, mostly feared by Karl Ove and his older brother Yngve. He had no real social life or social circle and kept himself removed from such. Karl Ove isn’t so dissimilar in his adult life, needing to escape from noise and finding himself quite easily bored and irritated.

Karl Ove does recall events when his father did try to spend quality time with him, taking him fishing and similar. As Karl Ove reaches sixteen he reflects of living in a nearby house, (his grandmother’s) on his own. His mother, a nurse,  although warm did not appear to be there much for her children and the dynamic to this end is most unusual. You do get the sense that Karl Ove is protecting his mother as there is very little mentioned of her.

Knausgaard is hugely introspective and reflective about his  behaviours, often very matter of fact, but not without compunction and with some wry amusement. His is an extremely keen observationalist, recalling many intricacies. The book is very well translated by the talented Don Bartlett, perhaps made easier that given it is a literary genre, Knausgaard has a straightforward descriptive style, not laden with intense prose and metaphors that may not always translate so seamlessly – as noted in Julian Philpott’s review of Lacrimosa. He is also somewhat pre-occupied with the skyline and weather, which came to be depicted the same a little too often for me.

Karl Ove’s teenage years didn’t engage me and sustain my interest quite as well as in the rest of the book, although his social limitations and self-confidence issues are well conveyed. It is highly selective and slightly contradictory in so much as Karl Ove confides of  his poor memory and then depicts much with such clarity and detail, that some parts of his earlier life it would seem must have been embellished. However the book did regain its vigour and fascination when he learns of his father’s death.

This part of the book is captivating; Knausgaard is brutally honest about his father’s death and of the bitterness and dislike felt towards him. As though all the acceptance and tolerance was a coping strategy, and so upon death Knausgaard’s emotions overwhelm him as he cries uncontrollably releasing years of  repressed sentiments. The subconscious in death allowing positive emotions to re-emerge after years of suppression and submersion adding to a melody of confusion. Thus followed profound melancholy associated with  grieving and no future opportunity to receive the paternal approval so quietly yet desperately sought.

Stylistically this is a very readable book, with a refreshing diction. Honest, probably unparalleled in its approach and revelations. It will cause you to reflect deeply after you’ve completed it, which accounts for why it has been so enjoyably debated. I think Knausgaard’s memoirs are likely to have a long rippling effect the more widely it they are published and read.



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