In the Wake Paperback – Apr 17 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In his impressive American debut, veteran Norwegian novelist Petterson chronicles Arvid Jansen's breakdown in the six years since his parents and brother were killed in a ferry accident (modeled after the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia). Arvid wanders around Oslo and through the Norwegian countryside, sifting through memories of his stern, ultracompetent father and nursing an infatuation with his attractive neighbor, Mrs. Grinde. After Arvid's architect brother attempts suicide, Arvid tries to reconnect with him and pull them both out of the abyss. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Arvid is a witty, self-deprecating narrator who fought with his family while they were alive and misses them terribly now that they're gone. This novel won several literary prizes in Europe, where the Estonia disaster is well known. The events may not feel as immediate to American readers, but many will find Arvid's path of loss and redemption affecting nonetheless. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* In award-winning Norwegian author Petterson's forceful first American release, Arvid Jansson remembers April 7 the way many Americans remember September 11. It was the day his parents and two younger brothers were all killed in a horrific ferry accident. Even though it is now six years later, Arvid still suffers crippling grief. A divorced father of two girls whom he rarely sees, he is also estranged from his only remaining sibling, an older brother. So great is his enduring anguish that he says, "I do not know if I want family anymore. It is too risky." Yet he yearns for human contact and has stilted relationships with two neighbors, a Kurdish man who knows only three words of Norwegian and a woman who lives across the way. Born's skillful translation highlights Petterson's ability to convey the aching bewilderment of overwhelming grief as Arvid rambles through each day without purpose or direction. He is a wholly sympathetic character who misses his family and feels guilt over every argument he had with them. After his brother's unsuccessful suicide attempt, Arvid eventually begins to work his way out of his mournful morass to reunite with what family he has left. This is as fine a portrayal of the course of heartache and renewal as any in recent memory. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
"In the wake" is not modeled after the "Estonia"-accident, but after the fire on the passenger ferry "Scandinavian Star" on April 7th, 1990, where 159 people were killed [...].
Petterson lost his cousin, his brother, and his parents in this accident.
I will admit that I read the book in Norwegian first, but I found the translation to be equally good. Petterson is excellent at describing pain in a subtle way. He never becomes melancholy or uses flowing metaphors, despite the somewhat biographic nature of this book. He is also strong at creating imagery, such as his description of driving out of a tunnel into a wall of rain. The narrative style sometimes reminds you of Carver, at his best.
I don't think this book requires a strong knowledge of Norway, the "Scandinavian Star"-accident or any of the other references to be appreciated. It is, however, a book for those who appreciate literature that is not plot-driven, that is minimalist, and in some ways masculine.
We meet Arvid in a very confused state. He has 'awoken' outside a bookstore, with dirty, scratched palms and a bruised eye. He can't remember much of how he arrived there, or why he chose to return to the store where he worked, years ago. He was an author of mild success, forgotten now, not immortalised in death like Yeats or Kafka or Schulz, as he might have wished.
The novel is written in a first person perspective, which allows us deep insight into Arvid's mind. Action trigger thoughts which trigger memories of times that have long passed, more often than not to do with his father, a strong, stubborn, emotionally withdrawn man who Arvid felt never quite connected with any of his sons. Any memory at all will invariably contain a reference to his father, a brief thought, a whispered lament, an essay-like discourse on regret.
'I close my eyes, I hear the wind in the treetops, and it is a good sound. I have heard it both summer and winter on hundreds of cross-country treks with my father, when we rested and my breath was not the only sound I could hear, and sometimes the wind in the treetops was the only things that was good.'
This is typical of Arvid's thoughts. He is wistful for life with his father, but strangely none of his memories come across as particularly pleasant. Perhaps that is why he remembers them with such force. He regrets not the father he had, but the father he wanted. Unfortunately for Arvid - and for every child who grows to become a man or woman - we are stuck with the father we receive, for better or worse. If we cannot quite figure out how to be a parent to our own children, then how dare we expect such achievements from them? But of course we do, and that is the crux of Petterson's novel, the second of his to be translated into English, and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a prize which he was to win in 2007 for his novel, Out Stealing Horses.
The novel is not only concerned with fathers. There is a strong current of loneliness which runs throughout. Arvid becomes involved with a young woman who lives in an apartment across from his own, they watch each other through their windows, communicating in silence. One particularly evocative scene happens shortly after they have become lovers. '...I see her turning and looking back at me, and we just stand there and then she lets her dressing gown drop ... Her skin shines dimly and is whiter than anything else I can see, and she lifts both hands and lays their palms against the pane, and then I do the same, lift my hands and lay the palms against the pane, and it's as if it was just that one window, a few millimetres of glass between her and me...' A metaphor for the entire novel, Arvid is a man who comes close to, but cannot quite, touch the lives of others, or be touched himself. He tries, but there is always that thin pane of glass between his fingers and theirs.
The novel is not without awkwardness, however. 'Give me any car at all, as long as it's a Japanese and begins with an m and ends with an a.' This sort of cleverness feels flat and forced - why not just say you like Mazda's? There are many little literary tricks scattered throughout this book, and most of them fall flat. They come across as being written by the author rather than thought by the character. However, it is worth wondering whether or not these stumbles are the fault of the author, or the translator. In the Wake could not be confused with a novel originally written in English, there are too many pages of writing that would be considered too 'flat'.
For all its loneliness, sadness, withdrawn emotions and awkward phrasings, Petterson's novel is worthy. It is not difficult to fall into the claustrophobic, introverted world of Arvid, and the journey is well worth the effort. While Arvid's issues with his father are not resolved - and how could they be, for he is dead - there is a sense that he is progressing towards something further in his life that could help him. Whether that is hitting 'rock bottom' with his suicidal brother, or embracing a woman he likes but not loves, we cannot know. But there is something happening within his breast, some stir of the heart that was not present at the beginning of the novel. Growth, then.
The first 120 pages of this book are challenging to read as Arvid comes in and out of the past. The picture of the first half of the book is best described on page 119: "I drive through the fog...everything moves in slow motion...no sudden movements, no loud sounds, nothing but this milky-white soup in which everything flows silently as in a sleepwalker's dream. I feel tired again."
I admire Petterson's writing style - beautiful, vivid, sparse, emotionally heart-tugging - but found this book coming up somewhat short and particularly so in the first half as it meandered and muddled around too much for my taste. His 2nd book - Out Stealing Horses - was more crisply tied together and more compelling.
IN THE WAKE is a rewarding novel, but not a great one, like OUT STEALING HORSES. Perhaps if I had read ITW first, I would give it 5 stars, but I didn't and I feel compelled to signal that it is a notch below OSH.
An interesting feature of ITW is the occasional reference to works of pop and middle-brow culture, both written and musical. Among those I noted are references to Rick Bass, Alice Munro, Billie Holliday (to whom reference also is made in OSH), Jan Garbarek, Jack London, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Waits, and Steve Earle. In fact, the line from Earle -- "I've been to hell, and now I'm back again, I feel all right." -- sums up the state of mind at the end of the novel of Arvid's brother (a failed suicide) and perhaps Arvid himself. Two other references with which I am not familiar -- Svante Foerster's "The Class Warrior" and Yasar Kemal's "Memed, My Hawk" -- might also be relevant to one's understanding of the book.
Another point of note: According to Amazon reviewer K. Gould, the April 7, 1990 ferry disaster in which Arvid's parents and two younger brothers died has a real world parallel -- a fire on the passenger ferry "Scandinavian Star" on April 7, 1990, in which 159 people died, including Per Petterson's parents, brother, and cousin. Further, Arvid, like Petterson, was born in 1952, and Petterson worked as a bookseller before becoming a successful novelist, while Arvid once worked in a bookstore and has aspirations to be a writer, something at which he works sporadically. All of which, of course, raises the question about whether, and the likelihood that, other aspects of IN THE WAKE are autobiographical.
Still Arvid tries to reconnect with his estranged "Big Brother" and even makes human contact with his Kurdish neighbor, though neither understands the language of the other. Then there is Mrs. Grinde, who looks at him all the time from her window; he wonders if it is as a sex object or a bug though he admits to himself he would like a tryst with her. He thinks back on his demanding father, who he fought with when his dad was alive and Arvid realizes in some macabre way his misses the arguments.
IN THE WAKE is a reflective insightful look at grief from the perspective of an individual who seems on the brink of a breakdown with no one to turn to for help. Arvid narrates a few weeks in his life as he still mourns his loss though six years has past since the tragic sinking of MS Estonia (real event). Suffering from survivor guilt and alienated from everyone, Arvid believes that along with the deaths of his family, his writing ability died. This is a deep character study that centers on grief as individualized and solitary, however to return to the living one must look to others not for help, but to help.