What do we see when we look back over our lives. Are we the hero of our own story? Looking into that mirror, can we really see ourselves, or is our view doomed to be perpetually blocked, offering maybe a Maigret image of only the backs of our heads?
A man, 67, Trond, lives alone in a small house by a lake in east Norway and contemplates his past. We travel back and forth between the present, 1999, and 1948 when he was a fifteen-year-old, living with his father in a summer place. The events of that summer defined his life in many ways. This is his coming of age story.
I was very much of two minds about this book. For the first half, maybe two thirds, I loved it, thought it might be a masterpiece. There is a rich store of allusion here, imagery that fills, language that offers structure and beauty in support of its aims, story-telling craft that (mostly) worked very well. But I found that the back third left me
If I could I would have given it 3.5 stars.
There are events in the story that call for some more drama in how Trond reacts, yet he often seems incapable. Maybe that was the author’s intent. I don’t know, but I found it unsatisfying. Too many questions were left up in the air for my comfort. The book made me wonder, though, if the author’s great gifts have been put to more satisfying use in other works.
I was impressed with how Petterson modulated the pace and tone of his words. I loved the sparse, clipped sentences that open the book.
"Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window….There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow."
This reflects well the starkness of the character, how his life is as stripped down as the words.
Petterson’s style grows appropriately breathless when painting a haying scene:
"As the wire gradually unrolled it became easier, but by then I was that much more exhausted, and there was suddenly an opposition to everything that was physical and I grew mad and did not want anyone there to see I was such a city boy, particularly while Jon’s mother was looking at me with that blinding blue gaze of hers. I’d make up my own mind when it would hurt, and if it should show or not, and I pushed the pain down into my body so my face would not gibe me away, and with arms raised I unrolled the reel and the wire ran out until I came to the end of the meadow, and there I put the reel down in the short stubble of the newly mown grass, the wire taut, all as calmly as I could and just as calmly straightened up and pushed my hands into my pockets and let my shoulders sink down."
There are many references that add a feeling of substance and connection to the work, references to Dickens, Oedipus, Maigret, the River Styx. Petterson likes to mirror events and images. Being run off the road is used several times, crossing the river (Styx?) from one life to another, several watery baptisms. But while the imagery satisfies the thinness of Trond leaves one wanting something other.