Saturday 20 January 2018

Books: A small book that leaves a big impact on the reader

Fiction: Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes Per Petterson Harvill Secker, £10, hbk

Gripping: Author Per Petterson
Gripping: Author Per Petterson

Michael North

This is a small book from the Norwegian writer who won the Dublin IMPAC prize in 2007 for the unforgettable novel Out Stealing Horses. But it is a small book that packs a punch.

Arvid Jansen lives with his mother, father and sister, Gry, in early-1960s Sweden in the shadow of the Cold War -- his Uncle Rolf hates communists. The family is poor, Dad is a factory worker and they live in a leaky tower block.

Arvid is a frail, hyper-sensitive child who stays in bed for four days when told that nuclear war may end the world. His imaginative neuroses determine his actions -- he smashes the clock to release the caged tiger because he can't bear his mother ageing and, for him, six-and-a-half is "enough".

His observations are acute -- the faint smell of burning as his mother smooths her hair, cigarette in hand -- and they confound adult preconceptions: his father's song at bedtime makes him close his eyes because he wants it to stop, not because he likes it. His dad, a brooding war veteran who is quick to anger, is the boy's key influence -- a macho man who tries to toughen up his puny son with cold showers, but who can also be tender.

Petterson's style -- smoothly translated by Don Bartlett -- is stripped like a bleached Wallander landscape and leaves you no place to hide from Arvid's all-too-vivid reality. You are gripped by a few simple words.

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Irish Independent

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