Book Quote:

“…it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt how time was battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with me and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman (AUG 4, 2010)

It’s difficult to compare Per Petterson with anyone except Per Petterson. His writing is always exquisite and precise and heartbreaking and spare. In Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia, each word is used as a brick, building one upon the other, and not one brick is out of place.

Per Petterson’s craftsmanship is on display here, as it has been in his prior novels. Alas, this one, which explores the relationship between a mother and a son, is more static and sluggish than his other works. Still, Petterson at his less-than-best is still better than most writers at the height of their powers.

Arvid Jansen is 37 and life hasn’t turned out exactly as it should. He has plundered the promise of a higher education to become part of the proletariat; he has embraced Communism and now the “party of the people” has unraveled and the Berlin wall is coming down. His wife of 15 years is filing for divorce. And his mother – his beautiful, aloof, and strong mother – has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Arvid follows his mother to Norway where he reflects on his childhood, his flirtation with Communism, his birth family, and the women who have flitted through his life. Of his mother, he reflects, “I became the Lone Ranger, looking for unsafe ground, and I clung to her did tricks for her, performed for her, pulled laughter out of her with my silly jokes whose punchlines were lost in linguistic confusion…”

Indeed, Arvid feels like he has disappointed his mother. In one of the more poignant scenes, his memory captures a time when his mother turned 50 and he prepared to give a toast. Drunk, out of his league, he bungles the moment and humiliates himself. He wants to say, “The good news, Mother, is the river had dried up…only a trickle remains so now it is easy to cross…so you see, nothing’s too late for us, we can walk right across or meet halfway.” What he DOES say is far different.

Much of this book deals with the chasms between us, the rivers of time that don’t let us cross and connect. The river-as-time metaphor captures how Arvid is caught in the flow of life, sometimes turbulent, that has upturned his life and now may do the same to his two daughters. And, much like a river, the narrative ebbs and flows, becomes bogged down, bursts free in spurts, and meanders to its destination.

Eventually, Arvid realizes that “…you suddenly realize that very chance of being the person you really wanted to be is gone forever, and the one you were is the one that those around you will remember.” In this, he is like everyman – sorting through regrets, trying to define who he really is, attempting to make peace (if only in his memories) with who he is and has been.

The novel’s title is taken from a poem by Chairman Mao whom Arvid idolized in his Communist days; maturity and eventual mortality are themes that run throughout the book. This novel of ideas requires concentration and total immersion in the mind of Arvid; much of the action is internal and distanced. It will appeal to some, but not all, of Per Petterson’s fans.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Graywolf Press (August 3, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Per Petterson
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


August 4, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Drift-of-Life, Literary, World Lit

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