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Review: Fiction: ‘It’s Fine by Me’ by Per Petterson

'The bell rang and I was the last to leave, I didn't want anyone at my back." Such is the opening impulse of Auden Sletten, a 13-year-old boy on his first day at a new school.

He determinedly wears his sunglasses even when the rain teems down, insisting they be kept on in class, convincing his new teacher that he has horrible scars around his eyes that need protecting. Auden doesn't want to belong, he wants to disappear.

The title of Norwegian writer Per Petterson's latest novel seems somewhat monochrome compared with its predecessors, I Curse the River of Time and the IMPAC winning Out Stealing Horses. But it does suit the typical teenager, petulant, defensive, secretive.

And the title is Auden's refrain, his safety mechanism. But it is also clearly not true, as his best friend Arvid, the only person to whom Auden reveals the vulnerable boy behind the prickly armour, remarks: "Do you know something, Auden. Nothing's fine by you. Absolutely nothing."

Auden is teetering on the brink of manhood, his coming of age hastened by the abandonment of his abusive alcoholic father and the tragic death of his older brother Egil.

He must fill shoes that his feet are still too small for, accept responsibility his father never took charge of.

His mother is trying to move forward, to unshackle herself from her dark and battered past.

But Auden is mired in his unforgiving present, his future bathed in winter's bleak half-light.

As is often the case with Petterson's flawed heroes, moments of self-deprecation are punctured by flashes of the blackest rage as Auden battles the demons inside, the demons he has perhaps inherited from his most violent father. They are also, thankfully, interspersed with bittersweet humour.

A reference to the death of Jimi Hendrix places us in 1970, otherwise the details, the people, the places retain Petterson's timeless quality.

As we progress through this critical period in Auden's life, Petterson plays clever games with the timeline, seamlessly flashing back and forth but never breaking the thread.

The vast and extreme landscapes of Norway continue to dominate Petterson's writing, they are characters as strong, vibrant and intrinsic as any others.

"The brilliant blue autumn sky, the yellow ridges, yes, every leaf up close and binocular-sharp in the limpid air".

In fact, save Auden, the other human characters are only partially drawn. His mother and his brutal father and Arvid are the most filled out, but even these come second place to the mountains and rivers Auden feels at home in more so than any house. He can only connect with the elements.

Petterson's lack of sentimentality is one of his strengths but also, particularly in this book, something of a weakness as it makes Auden seem to lack some sort of depth.

Though the circumstances of his life are unique, there is something unremarkable at the essence of his character that makes it hard to form a bond.

You do care for him, his struggles to become a man, but the events he lives through, the quandaries he faces, are somehow slightly humdrum, failing to fully engage.

You end up agreeing with the guarded and circumspect title, it's fine by me.

Indo Review