Friday August 20th, 2010

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

pettersonNorwegian novelist Per Petterson’s follow-up to the surprise hit Out Stealing Horses is set in 1989 and stars Arvid Jansen, a 37-year-old communist struggling with the dissolution of his marriage, the impending death of his mother from stomach cancer, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stacey D’Erasmo writes: “In his books . . . Petterson depicts a literal and figurative geography that, to American readers, might feel a little like the starker reaches of the West, a little like the stonier shores of Maine, a little like Edward Hopper, a little like Raymond Carver.”

Hillary Kelly writes that Arvid Jansen, “meanders over nearly every inch of Oslo and, for a good portion of the novel, into Jutland, at the northernmost tip of Denmark. As he wanders his musings skip haphazardly though time — Arvid’s memory is the only moving limb of an otherwise paralyzed psyche. . . . Petterson’s hauntingly bleak prose and tightly assembled nonlinear narrative are hallmarks of his work, and they shine here.”

Bob Thompson says, “The stubborn mysteries of family conflict are [Petterson’s] subject, and he evokes them in a voice whose straightforwardness belies its subtlety.” Thompson also say that an earlier Petterson novel might hold the key to the mother-son relationship here, and that Arvid is “simply less compelling when his tough, complicated parent is offstage.” John Freeman agrees that Arvid’s mother is the crucial character: “She looms large in this tale, like one of the bruising fathers of Russell Banks’ novels.”

Charles McGrath says, “[T]he book, while just as well written as [Out Stealing Horses], doesn’t have the same historical sweep or resonance. It’s more claustrophobic, trapping the reader inside the gloomy head of its narrator.” But most critics, while noting that same gloominess, recommend the book anyway. Kelly says, “Arvid is simply unlikable,” but that “the hero’s stasis does not forfeit all claims on the reader’s sympathy. This is a finely drawn portrait of a man in suspension.” Likewise, D’Erasmo concludes that, “There is a quality that I can only call charm, or something like charm, to Petterson’s essentially dark and lonely sensibility.”

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
Graywolf, 224 pp., $23.00