There are certain things one comes to expect when reading a Per Petterson novel — a nostalgic yearning for childhood, the death or absence of family members, a profound feeling of isolation, a bone-deep sensation of loss — and Petterson’s latest book, “I Refuse,’’ does not disappoint.
The story opens with 50-something Jim running into his old friend Tommy during an early morning fishing trip. Although outwardly the men appear happy to see each other, inwardly both are struck with the memories of their friendship as teenagers in their hometown of Mork, Norway, more than 30 years before.
Like many Petterson characters, they are dogged by memories of events from their youth. For Tommy, it is his violent attack on his physically abusive father resulting in his father’s disappearance and the farming out of the children to different foster homes. For Jim, it is the burden of mental illness, which caused him to attempt suicide at 19. As the novel jumps between flashbacks of the men’s pasts and the present day, additional narration by Siri, Tommy’s younger sister, and Jonsen, Tommy’s guardian, provide further context for the characters’ obsessions and memories.
Petterson’s work has been described by James Wood in The New Yorker as having an interest in the “pictorial and spatial rather than logical and interrogative,’’ and the novel’s cyclical nature is reflective of the nonlinear experiences of Petterson’s characters. However, unlike other poetic writing where fragments and their absences build toward a greater whole, the gaps between the events in “I Refuse’’ often feel more empty than filled. “You don’t remember what you never fail to do,’’ says an older Jim while attempting to renew his health benefits at the local Social Security office, and Petterson’s hints at these perceived failures — Jim’s inability to recall why he was driven to attempt suicide, for example — don’t always satisfy.
Other strands involving the women in the novel — Fru Berggren, Tommy’s missing mother, and Siri — hint at the brush strokes of their personalities without ever painting them fully. “I did miss him, of course, but the missing had no shape,’’ says Siri of Tommy as she moves through her teens. And as she too drifts toward her own life of disenfranchisement, there’s the constant feeling that these characters, which are more device-driven than integral, are about to float away.
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An explanation for Petterson’s interest in the unanswered perhaps lies in his personal history. In 1990, Petterson lost his mother, father, brother, and nephew in a ferry accident, and throughout “I Refuse’’ there is the sense that the characters are persistently reaching toward things that are always out of their grasp.
This evanescence is often echoed in Petterson’s sentences: strange, kinetic creatures that take flight, collecting as much as they throw away. “I could feel my cheeks turning red, not red, more numb, no, not numb, but more like your fingers are when you come in from the biting cold in wintertime and your bare hands meet the wild heat of the house; right then, when they really quiver, just before it starts to hurt as your fingers thaw, that was how it felt,’’ says Siri in a moment of romance with the young Jim. While Petterson’s characters are difficult to take hold of, his sentences are often hard to shake off.
The strands of the novel finally come together at the end to reach an unavoidable, if rather bleak, conclusion. If “I Refuse’’ is occasionally obtuse it is because Petterson is reaching for something that doesn’t strike home automatically, but like the cold, seeps in long after the windows have been closed and everything put away.
Says Siri about her childhood: “Sometimes it’s not possible to remember exactly what happened during a certain phase of your life . . . but you do remember what colours the days were, and your palms remember the soft, the smooth and the rough, remember every surface, remember stones and the bark of trees.’’ Petterson may not be for everyone’s taste, but his work remains, like his own reminiscences, exquisite impressions that glimmer as quickly as they fade.