Book review: I Refuse

I REFUSE is the latest novel from the Norwegian novelist, Per Petterson, who won the 2007 International Impac Dublin literary award for his acclaimed work, Out Stealing Horses.

Per Petterson

Translated by Don Bartlett

Vintage 2015, £8.99

His new book, first published in 2012, and now translated by Don Bartlett into English, covers similar ground and provides a harrowing account of childhood, of friendship, and of family disruption.

This short novel, precise, scrupulous and emotionally intense, opens in September 2006 with the accidental meeting on a bridge in the early morning of two childhood friends, Tommy and Jim.

The two men are now in their fifties and have followed very different paths, out of contact for many years despite a close and nurturing early companionship. In lives fraught with pain, loss, violence, and melancholy, the close connection between the two men was once a nurturing element.

However, on the turn of a coin, their closeness shattered and this chance meeting triggers lost memories and deeply stored emotions for both men. Jim, in particular, is at a point of crisis in his life, in danger of losing his job as a librarian, haunted by his past fears, and on the brink of despair.

From this first meeting, there is a gradual process of discovery for the reader, each section unfolding more of the hidden past and its secrets, inter-woved with the linked fears of the present.

Peterson is a skilled storyteller and the narrative switches seamlessly between the present and the past. 

In particular, the focus is on the consequences of a traumatic night in 1966 when Tommy’s mother walked out into the cold night, leaving him and his sister Sigi and their young twin sisters behind, vulnerable to their violent father.

This makes it seem like a complex novel to read but, in fact, the narrative flows very well, aided by the carefully-observed prose and the precision of the language.

As a constant in the novel, the quiet observations of the Norwegian landscape, the winter snow, the quality of the northern light, the beauties of the murderously cold climate form the real narrative core of the novel.

This perfect starkness is caught by the descriptions of the landscape and of the emotional territory of the novel, lost parents, a shattered family, a struggle with the desire to end life, all become intertwined with each other.

Tommy and Jim are the central focus of the novel and the narrative circles back to their childhood in the 1960s and then on to their adolescence in the 1970s to reveal, slowly, the cause of their adult estrangement.

Gradually, short revelatory episodes from the life of Tommy’s sister Sigi as an adult reveal the fates of their vanished mother and violent father.

While admiring the control and the care with which the novel was written, for me, there was something relentless about this novel, however admirable the honesty of Petterson’s imaginative linking of harsh, lovely landscape with inner turmoil.

There are beautiful moments in the novel, the two boys skating at night in a moonlight world, the revelation of Tommy’s mother’s final fate but there was sometimes a sameness to the internal voices for each character, a shared determination to endure and a refusal of any kind of compromise with the harsh world that surrounds them, hence the title of the novel.

Overall an admirable and honest novel.

  • Eibhear Walshe’s novel, The Diary of Mary Travers, published by Somerville Press, is long listed for the 2016 Dublin International Literary Award.


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