I’ve gone bonkers over Per Petterson’s writing. Born in Norway in 1952, Petterson was a librarian and a bookseller before he published his first work in 1987, a volume of short stories. His third novel, Out Stealing Horses, became an international best seller. Since then, he has published three other novels, which have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers.
I’ve now read all of his books, and, as a writer, I’ve learned a great deal from him about technique, especially point of view and his use of time. I Refuse, Petterson’s most recent novel, captures the main characters’ lifetime in a compressed space.
September 2006 reunites Tommy and Jim, devoted friends in their youth, after they’ve been separated for 35 years. Fragments from their earlier time together, threaded together by a master weaver, are woven into the 2006 “present” narrative, the books anchor. Petterson slips effortlessly backward and forward in time, adding layers to these characters’ lives, even though his language often is as spare as the Norwegian landscape. He also doesn’t feel enslaved by first- or third-person point of view but enters each as easily as he moves in time.
While I Refuse evokes Tommy and Jim’s inner and outer lives, limning not only how different these men are but also how their pasts made it inevitable that they would meet again under vastly different circumstances, it also captures their dysfunctional childhood. The present dilemma each man faces seems an inevitable outcome of those early years and their particular destiny. It’s as if they were goldfish placed in too small of a fishbowl and therefore can only grow within that circumference. Their past determines their present.
Petterson’s spare but poetic prose never fails to draw me in. His ability to gracefully evoke character and setting is so accomplished that, without realizing it, I enter the world he creates and feel I have always lived there.