by Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Although this is Per Petterson's first novel, it was only published in the US last year. It's Fine By Me is the slim story of teenage Audun Sletten and his complicated relationships with his absent father, his mother, and his best friend, Arvid. He and Arvid are growing up in working class Oslo, and both aspire to some form of greatness, even though they are unsure by what means to get there.
One afternoon, Audun thinks he spots his father walking down the street, and the idea of his presence both unnerves and angers him. He is the ghost of a difficult past, one that makes a teenager cultivate a hardened exterior. However much Audun wants to believe in something, like his friend with his steadfast politics, it bothers him that he has nothing but the desire to move on.
I am tired. I still have homework to do and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me something at school is not going the right way. What I do, I do well enough. What I hear, I remember and understand, I am not an idiot, but it's as if the rest of my class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about, as if there is a secret pact between teachers and students that does not include me. They know something I do not, and that's how it's been for a long time now.
Like Petterson's later novel, I Curse The River of Time, Audun's story is one of loneliness, while also making the larger point that so many of everyone's stories are about loneliness. Inarticulate sadness. Audun's mother mourns for her lost eldest child, Egil. Audun's older sister, Kari, has already moved away and lives with a possibly abusive boyfriend. With half a year of school left, Audun doesn't want to be like everyone else, but he thinks he wants to be a writer, maybe like Jack London, who he and Arvid like to read.
Petterson's writing has a difficult beauty. He can describe both scenery and mental turmoil in true ways that do not necessarily romanticize the details — even if the characters believe they are giving us the rose-tinted view.
I have not forgotten the cornfields in autumn, or Lake Aurtjern in July or the apple tree outside my window, and all I had to do was reach out and pick an apple, or the long gravel road where Siri Skirt used to walk and show her bottom for two ten øre coins, and she wasn't wearing anything underneath, and once I was allowed to walk round twice while she held her skirt up under her chin; or the rafting holiday on Lake Hurdal. My father forced me to come with him, and made me pull up a pike that scared me witless, and when I refused, he hit me in the face, and then I hammered a nail into my foot, and we were forced to go home.
Petterson also appears quite fond of exploring memory and the act of becoming consumed by it. These characters do not succumb to memory; they make the active decision to let their thoughts take hold. They want to figure out what these memories mean, and how their past has made them who they are. At times, Audun realizes he's been living mainly in his own head at the expense of his personal relationships, but he's unsure if he cares.
Both It's Fine By Me and I Curse the River of Time are light on plot, but they are wholly interesting as character pieces. I've really enjoyed both, and they make me want to read Petterson's other (perhaps more famous) novel, Out Stealing Horses. When it comes to exploring melancholy, he's one of the best.
Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them, and will continue to be fair with my reviews.
This review is part of Cannonball Read V, in which participants attempt to read and review 52, 26, or 13 books in a year. A charitable donation is made for those who complete 52 reviews by December 31, 2013.