Book review: I Refuse

I Refuse by Per Petterson 19-10-14This is the story of the friendship and un-friendship of two Norwegian men, their boyhood and manhood, told retrospectively as they meet by chance in 2006 on a bridge in early morning after many years apart.

Jim and Tommy are school friends, living in a small town outside Oslo. Both have difficult home lives. Jim lives with his single mother, a staunch Christian. Tommy’s mother disappears one night into the snow and as the eldest he copes with a violent father and three younger siblings. The two boys unite, until at 18 they are friends no more…

At that moment on the bridge, when the two men recognize each other, I wondered what had happened to separate them for 35 years. We learn the stories of their childhood and the hours before that meeting on the bridge, through their own flashbacks plus the voices of Tommy’s sister Siri, their mother Tya and his guardian Jonsen. Small incidents, unintended actions, everyday words, throwaway insults – the stuff of everyday life – all combine to affect the two boys in ways that last with them through adulthood. Things are said and unsaid.

Petterson’s style is distinctive, a long sentence followed by a short sharp sentence of five or six words used for emphasis. Occasionally I re-read a sentence and got more from it, Petterson’s perception of life is multi-layered and this is a novel which will reward re-reading. He has a way of putting his finger straight on the core point. In 2006 Jim is thinking of his own death, though at this point in the story the reader doesn’t know if he is actually ill or just contemplating mortality. “He knew that one day soon she would get over it and to everyone’s surprise, would have put it behind her, forgotten it already, or hidden it inside herself, the size of a shirt button.” Just as we don’t know if Jim is dying, we also don’t know who the ‘she’ refers to. “He dragged himself along on his knees, the cross was heavy and sharp against his shoulder. I’m so thirsty, he thought and they give me only vinegar to drink.”

The title I Refuse refers to both boys who refuse to compromise, refuse to forgive, refuse to forget. When they are 18, Jim and Tommy talk about friendship, “… it will last if we want it to. It depends on us. We can be friends for as long as we want to.”

I have another new author to explore.

[photo: Finn Ståle Felberg]

[photo: Finn Ståle Felberg]

If, like me, you know nothing about Per Petterson [above], click here to read an interview with him by The Economist magazine.
Click here to read an article in The New Yorker about a man, obsessed by reading Per Petterson.

‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett [UK: Harvill Secker]

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