I Refuse by Per Petterson

29/11/14, The Guardian

In 1966, when Tommy is fourteen, he takes a rounder’s bat to his father’s ankle and breaks it, in response to a particularly vicious hiding at the hands of the violently abusive man. On the surface this might appear to be the originating force for the narrative of Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Refuse, but an earlier episode stands behind it. Fru Berggren, the mother of Tommy, his younger sister, Siri, and a pair of much younger twin sisters, walked out on them on a snowy midwinter night in 1964, and was never seen again. Following Tommy’s standing up to years of abuse, the injured father, too, disappears. He will resurface nearly forty years later, much like Jim, Tommy’s closest friend, who moves away from their village, Mørk, when the boys are nineteen; the novel opens with a chance encounter between Jim and Tommy on a bridge on an early autumn morning in 2006; this is the first time they set eyes on each other in over thirty years. If this brings to mind the meeting between Trond and Lars after fifty years in Petterson’s acknowledged masterpiece, Out Stealing Horses (2005), that is because Petterson returns to cognate themes in his work – the disappearance of parents; long absences terminating in a chance meeting that telescopes time; male friendship; childhood damage and loss marking lives like an old, indelible stain; secrets and repressed, hidden or unspoken things – with a rigour and doggedness that is beginning to look like an aesthetic programme with a unity of vision.

Looping back in time from that brief meeting, Petterson gives us the histories of each of his characters, sometimes narrated in the first person, at others in free indirect style. The chapter-headings, featuring a name, or two, and a year, provide signposts to the reader. Tommy and Jim are the protagonists, of course, but we get sections centred on Jonsen, the man who takes Tommy in when the social services break up the family of the four Berggren siblings following Tommy’s father’s disappearance; on Siri, the sibling closest to Tommy in age and bound to him, it is strongly indicated, by near-incestuous mutual romantic attraction; even on Fru Berggren, Tommy’s long-lost mother, on whose vanishing and later life a tantalising partial illumination is shed.

The rupture in Tommy and Jim’s inseparable friendship occurs when Jim, at the age of nineteen, tries to hang himself in a woodshed. A short spell in hospital, followed by one in ‘the Bunker’, a psychiatric unit far outside town, culminates in Jim’s mother leaving town hurriedly with her son. So what happens when they accidentally spot each other after thirty-five years in the half-light of an autumn dawn? In Petterson’s chronology, fractured with the control and mastery of a great artist, readers will have to wait for two hundred pages until the thread of that encounter is taken up again, this time in more or less linear fashion. Meanwhile, an almost pointillist picture of lives blighted by damage and mental illness, of Tommy’s outward success and inner loneliness and Jimmy’s rudderless drift through the slipstream of his life, takes shape, acquiring such affective force that the final seventy-five pages feel fissile, about to detonate with tension.

Petterson’s great theme is Time and how we experience it. This has a direct bearing on how narrative positions and unspools itself in relation to the consciousness of time, and on how a writer represents human interiority perceiving it. In one sense, this is the only true problem – or subject, if you will – of the realist novel. As Tommy asks in middle age, ‘[I]s time like an empty sack you can stuff any number of things into, does it never go just from here to there, but instead in circles, round and round, so that every single time the wheel has turned, you are back where you started.’ Petterson’s signature technique lies in drawing the most zigzag line imaginable through narrative chronology but the effect is not of confusion, instead of a dense, layered complexity: it is the realist novel form’s mimetic faithfulness to life itself.

His prose, which has the quality of northern light, and the stark clarity of its winters, too, is honed to rise to this level of truth-telling. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ is a much-misunderstood term but, cleaving close to the characters’ points of view, Petterson’s long ribbons of sentences, held together by a rich, repeated use of ‘and’, sometimes euphorically defying grammar but always truthful and pitch-perfect, bring fresh meaning to the term and its possibilities. In Don Bartlett’s pellucid translation, the rhythm of the austere prose, alternating between sentences as short as three or four words and those running over twelve or fifteen lines, is mesmerising.