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on August 6, 2010
I'm a big fan of spare, economical fiction. So, when I heard that Graywolf Press had just released an English translation (by Charlotte Barslund) of Per Petterson's latest novel, I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME, I settled in to read it with the high expectation that it would deliver the same moving experience as his best-selling novel OUT STEALING HORSES. No such luck. If spare and economical fiction is a good thing, there may be too much of a good thing, and I think I encountered it in this book. As I will note below, there is much in this novel that is wonderful, but too much of the remainder feels empty, like the bleak landscapes he describes.

Petterson's novel is a portrait of the layered relationship between a 37-year-old man and his mother; he is on the verge of divorce, she has just discovered that she has cancer. The story swings between the present and the past as it dissects the nature of their relationship, particularly the way he disappointed her by leaving college (and the life she believed it augured for him) to pursue industrial labor in solidarity with the communist movement that held him in its sway.

Petterson is a fine writer and a brilliant, compassionate observer. There is an incredibly moving passage where the main character, Arvid, remembers a scene at Ullevål Hospital, where one of his brothers was dying, hooked up to a ventilator. the main character, Arvid, Consider this, the main character's memory of events surrounding the death of one of his brothers. He walks into the brother's hospital room, and his parents are both there with his brother. He thinks: "... I could not recall a single thing we had shared. No confidences exchanged between us, not in recent years certainly, and not when we were children either. And that could not be right. It was all there if only I could concentrate hard enough, but inside my brain there was something inattentive, some slippery patch of Teflon, where things that came swirling in and struck it bounced off again and were gone, a fickleness of mind. I was not paying attention, things happened and were lost. Important things." In that same recollection, Arvid reflects on an "inappropriate smile" on the face of his father, who was also there in the hospital room. "... I suddenly realized that he was embarrassed, that the expression I could see on his face, in his eyes, his faint smile, was embarrassment, and this while his third son was lying there dying just a few metres from him, or perhaps was already dead. And I was like my father was, we looked like each other, we were made from the same mould, I had always heard, and just like him, I too was embarrassed. I did not know death so close up, death was a stranger, and it made me embarrassed. I did not want to stay. I had just come in, but now I wanted out. I had no idea what to say and neither did my father, and our eyes met across the room, and we looked away at once and it made me feel so resigned and bitter, almost."

To my mind, that is exquisite writing -- so taut, so moving, so real. There are other passages of this quality in the book. Near the very end, for example, Arvid talks to his mother about her fear of dying, and he knows that he, too, is scared, not of being dead but of the dying itself, "the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone fo ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember."

In sum, there is much to be admired in this novel. Petterson is a sensitive and thoughtful observer of the human condition, and his characters feel so real because of the finger-on-pulse quality of his writing. But in my view, this is a case of a character-driven novel that needs a little more ooomph to push it along.
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on March 29, 2011
This is a tough novel to write about; other reviewers have noted its melancholy and lack of `story'. These are fair complaints; rather than echo them or retell the plot yet again, let me just share a few reactions that might veer off a bit from the other reviewers, with whom I tend to agree overall.

First, it is no small feat to fashion a moving novel using a narrator who is deeply flawed and perhaps even one might say, a perennial child. Arvid has, perhaps as a small recompense, the clarity of a child, allowing Petterson to employ his astonishing ability to make us see through Arvid's (usually) clear eyes. My favorite of many descriptive jewels "the peculiar thunk of a monkey wrench on the bench". Arvid's Scandinavia both within and without may be dark but Peterson lets us see every shade of grey and feel every fleeting glint of sunshine on the sea. I don't think I know of another author who can make me `see' so clearly and so often the world in which his characters swim (or sink). I would guess that most of this novel's words are devoted to describing the physical surroundings of a scene, usually as a character sees them. This creates an illusion of a world into which the reader can convincingly enter (and cannot easily escape)..sort of like `real life'.

And how many of us have lived in such families as his, where emotion, especially love, is so submerged beneath shyness and forgotten wounds and a northern reserve? I cringed in recognition more often than I would like to admit. Petterson somehow uses these failures to let the reader in fact see deeply into family dynamics (or at least intuit them) even though the characters often speak little more than a sentence or two at a time, and often don't even finish a thought.

In the end, I came to care for Arvid: too sensitive, too unskilled, too perennially a child to survive a world that presents him with the huge problems we pretend are `normal': divorce, alienation, death, lack of a good job, or a warm coat. Perhaps Petterson is reminding us of how unbearable these are for a `natural' man with few defenses or artifices. What must it do to realize that you (perhaps) love your mother far more than she loves you?
"Nothing happens" in this novel, readers complain. Well,life happens on every page of this extraordinary little book. Petterson invites us through Arvid (and most every other character) to see it for the unforgiving place it often is. What greater gift can a writer give us?
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Arvid, the protagonist of this Norwegian novel, is fifty now, and he has witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the demise of Communism, along with major changes in his own life and in the lives of his family members. This character novel opens in the middle of a swirl of Arvid's memories: time has flashed back to 1989, and Arvid is thirty-seven, at a major crossroads in his life, the details of which evolve slowly. Taking an oblique approach, author Per Petterson embeds Arvid's story within these memories, conveying them in language which twists and turns in upon itself while slowly moving forward in strong, musical cadences. Vibrant imagery, some of it symbolic, connects past, distant past, and present, as Arvid's story, propelled by his recollections of family relationships and his own life choices, evolves to show how he became the person he is.

As the novel begins, Arvid's mother has just discovered that she has a recurrence of cancer, and she has decided to take the ferry from Norway back to her "home," on Jutland. Arvid has had a testy relationship with his mother over the years and has not talked with her in a while, trying to avoid telling her that he and his wife are getting a divorce, but when he gets a message that his mother has left home, he, too, takes the ferry to Jutland to see her. During this time, he is inundated with memories, which come, seemingly at random, from different times in his life.

Throughout, however, Arvid returns to stories of his mother, who, though hard pressed for cash herself, still gave him money when he was in college, but who, when he decided to leave college and give up his chance to escape the kind of life she and her husband had been living, smacked him, hard, across his face. On his trip to Jutland, he sees constant change and sees that even the "permanence" of the local cemetery is impermanent: a grave marker is routinely vandalized. Homely details and intense descriptions of nature give weight and importance to Arvid's experiences and what they reveal of him.

Though Arvid is coolly reserved and often tamps down his feelings, the reader comes to know him, understanding his mixed feelings about his mother while also recognizing his need for her, accepting his distance from his father while regretting their lack of connection, accepting his decisions even when they seem to be wrong for him, and seeing the effects of change upon him at every stage of his life. Often ineffective in his actions, clumsy in expressing his inner feelings, especially in matters of love, and unable to give himself fully to others, Arvid lacks the stature of a "hero." It is in this very characteristic, however-his imperfect humanity-that he comes to life, becoming a character so real that even the author has said (in an inteview on PowellsBooks), "Sometimes I call him not my alterego but my stunt man." Mary Whipple

To Siberia: A Novel
Out Stealing Horses: A Novel
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on May 25, 2012
This novel is the reminiscence of a man looking back on his life at a time when he is facing an imminent divorce and the mortal illness of his mother, with whom he has had an intense but cold relationship. It is one of those Scandinavian novels that turn on declarations unspoken and feelings unacted. The title, which is a line from a poem by Mao Zedong, suggests the pervading bitterness. While his novel Out Chasing Horses, better known so far in the US, is of rural, life in the mountains of Norway, this is partly unban, in Oslo, and partly on a Danish resort island. As the title indicates the bitterness is not all about relationships; the rememberer has been a dedicated Maoist and now finds the class struggle meaningless. Instead of following a plot the reader gradually assembles the shards of his life from current scenes and cumulative flashbacks. Characterization works intensely through our growing understanding of how different people understand or fail to understand the protagonist and how differently he understands or fails to understand himself at different times. The prose is thrilling, at once straightforward, flexible, and resonant. I recommend this book strongly.
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on April 22, 2011
I picked up the latest Per Petterson book primarily because it was named a NY Times Notable Book of 2010. That is somewhat misleading because in fact the book was published in 2008 and only translated to English in 2010. Nevertheless, it made the list and I wanted to see if it was as good as Out Chasing Horses which I did enjoy. Whereas I thought it was a good book and a solid read, it was surely not his best. As it turns out however, this is the prequel to "In the Wake" which I have not read yet. In this work, Petterson in his usual economical writing style talks primarily about relationships. Mother and son. Woman and man. Husband and wife. Most of the relationships in this book are broken or about to be broken. 37 year old Arvid--the protagonist of the story is on his way towards divorce while at the same time reconciling with his mother who is dying of cancer. He lives in Oslo but when his mother turns sick, she decided to move back to Denmark where she was born and he follows her. In fact, he follows her twice in this story--both times the reader will find in dramatic fashion. An interesting storyline is also Arvid's association with Communism in his college days and some commentary regarding the fall of Communism and its afffect on Arvid and his friends. Overall, I thought the book was good but not gripping. It was not a particularly fast read for what is a pretty compact and short book. I recommend it to readers of Petterson but not enthusiastcally.
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on April 5, 2014
Per Petterson has written many books and I loved all of them. Although there are 3 that form a trilogy they are all related. Even in translation the prose is so strong that it comes through with all its sparseness and beauty. Not a bit like Steig Larsson fortunately, a great Norwegian writer.
Great article in The New Yorker by James Wood LATE AND SOON The novels of Per Petterson.
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on February 8, 2013
This is worth the read if you like Petterson, but not his best. I found "To Siberia" and "Out Stealing Horses" to both be better reads. The plot and characters are linked with those in "To Siberia" so you might as well read both to get the full story.

The novel ends in the abrupt, unresolved style that Petterson's other novels to. The difference here is that, at the end, you feel no sympathy for the main character and don't really care too much about what happens to him after the plot ends.
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on May 28, 2013
This is the 3rd book that I have read from Per Petterson and probably my 2nd favorite. My first being It's Fine By Me and my 3rd being Out Stealing Horses. I absolutely love his style of writing and his repetitiveness. I did enjoy this book but I found it to be very sad and it left me wanting more. If you are familiar with Per Petterson's writing than I think you will enjoy this story but if you aren't than you might be left with a question mark at the end. I find that his books are more about characters and their relationships...but that is one of my favorite things about his stories, I do fall in love with his characters. I would recommend this book!
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on March 22, 2014
[Note: Reviews written by many other readers of "I Curse the River of Time" can be found on Amazon's main product page for the book, here: I Curse the River of Time: A Novel (Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Hardcover)).]

Those who have read and were awed by Per Petterson's previous novel, Out Stealing Horses: A Novel, will find things to admire in "I Curse the River of Time." The two books have much in common, starting with a thoughtful male narrator who recalls, in a chronologically jumbled fashion, a handful of events that shaped his current moral and emotional condition. Both novels, at their most poignant, focus on the vicissitudes of the bonds between parent and child: a father and son in "Stealing Horses" and a mother and son in "River of Time." In both books the eldest character -- the retired 67-year-old narrator in "Stealing Horses" and the narrator's dying mother in "River of Time" -- travels to a second home at water's edge to live out their days.

Yet beyond these similarities there are significant differences in setting and tone. There is also a stark contrast in the maturity of the two narrators. If you are a reader entirely new to Petterson, these differences may be important as you select the book most apt to please.

"Out Stealing Horses," with its spare, classic qualities, and its emphasis on the character-defining power of raw nature, is reminiscent of such American authors as Hemingway and Jack London. Petterson obviously admires their writing. The remote rural setting of "Stealing Horses," its cast of unaffected men and women who meet hardship with stoicism, and the fact that its narrator is looking back on events that occurred over half a century ago in the era of World War II, allow the story to take on aspects of myth, a feeling at times of Biblical tragedy. No similar elegiac glow illuminates "I Curse the River of Time." It is set in more recent decades, largely in an industrial and contemporary urban environment, leaving little room for myth. Yet "River of Time" is richer in its psychological probing of the central parent-child bond (In a 2007 interview Peterson said, "All I ever think about is families."). It is also a more interesting study of another recurring Petterson theme: how historical events (in this case, the fall of communism) interrupt the fates of men and women.

One reason why some readers are likely to prefer "Stealing Horses" to "River of Time" is the flawed character of the new novel's narrator. The elements behind 37-year-old Arvid's existential crisis -- his membership in the Communist Party has lost its meaning; his wife is asking for a divorce; his dying mother still considers him "too fragile" to survive in the world -- simply may not be interesting enough to sustain your attention or your sympathy for his plight. It is true that Trond, the 67-year-old narrator of "Stealing Horses," shares with Arvid a nostalgia for the self-centeredness of their childhood. But Trond has lived a full life beyond that station while Arvid is maundering through life, hopelessly fixed on the irrecoverable. Arvid whines, he daydreams (in youth "I had all the time in the world in a way I have never had since") and laments his present status "adrift in time and space." His childishness is unaltered -- even, shockingly, at book's end.

What redeems "River of Time" is Petterson's command of incident and prose. His prose is at once unflashy and gorgeous. There are many beautifully rendered episodes (each reviewer here on Amazon seems to have his or her favorite). One is the lyrically described November stay at a country cabin where Arvid and his then girl friend spent a cold afternoon rowing a boat through the thinly iced lake. The author's easeful way of pulling philosophical reflections from commonplace events is on display as well. When Arvid takes a friend's dog to the vet to be euthanized, his imagination breaks free: "What worried me was that no one had asked if the dog was really mine. It felt unsafe, ambiguous, anything could happen, to anyone, if the one it was happening to had a trusting heart."

If you decide to read "I Curse the River of Time" as your introduction to Petterson, please know that the gifts you receive from it will be more than matched if you experience, next, "Out Stealing Horses."
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on February 18, 2011
This book was the first I had heard of Per Petterson, much less read of him, but I can honestly say it has very quickly turned me into a fan, and I look forward to reading more.

Petterson's overall tone as well as his more complex stylistic tweaks shone through to me despite the book being a translation, a point deserving of much appreciation as the style to me is what really lets this novel come across as something with tremendous emotional resonance and staying power.

I've heard Petterson's prose described as `spare', and while I want to agree with that I feel inclined to describe it more specifically as `emotionally spare'; this has nothing to do with the emotions perhaps described in some way or in the emotions almost certainly felt by the reader (true for this reader, at least), but `spare' in the sense that I never felt Petterson was trying or even wanted to be trying to browbeat be into feeling a certain way. Sure the story given and which sub-stories we're given point us a certain direction, this is far from a feel-good novel, but these complex emotions come about through this text not by brute force but with a subtle finesse. I've noted the importance of this style because it's coupled with a story that is so full of sadness and loneliness that it'd have been terribly easy to let melodrama reign supreme, providing a story so overdone it's essentially cliche. But the spareness, the temporal shifts and other well-worked mechanisms keep the narrative almost cruelly restrained, leaving this reader feeling as far away and lonely as poor Arvid.

Speaking of our narrator, Arvid seems as far away from the events around him as the reader. His divorce, his failed socio-political aspirations, his dying mother and otherwise distant and non-existent family-Arvid seems to grasp this distance as well and works the entire novel to overcome it, seeming desperate at all turns to not necessarily find his way back to any so-called halcyon days, but to at least bridge the gap long enough to share in something meaningful with his mother before her imminent death, even while she seems to be to be looking for her own final moments in another direction, truly as distant from Arvid as he feels from her.

Petterson's descriptions and overall narrative movements do exactly what they need do: keep things moving and stitched together without detracting from the characters and their vastly complex emotions and interactions. This is key as it's these complexities, never resolved nicely, that fill the novel beginning to end and make it such a beautifully troubling novel to finish. I don't believe it spoils anything to say that Petterson is a writer uninterested in happy endings and all their simplistic, annoying facades.
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