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In the Wake

by Per Petterson

In the Wake is a short book that, like OUT STEALING HORSES, Pettersonís IMPAC prize winning novel, punches above its weight. It is the story of a man who has lost everything and it is a powerful exploration of the corrosive nature of grief.

We meet Arvid in Oslo outside a bookshop, so early in the morning that the shop is not yet open, and it is a while before he realises that he doesnít work there any more. He has been on a bender and has two broken ribs and no memory of the night before.

Since his parents and younger brothers were killed in a terrible ferry accident six years before, Arvidís life has fallen apart. He is separated from his wife and children and lives by himself in a brutalist apartment block where he knows none of the other, apparently equally damaged, residents.

Like OUT STEALING HORSES, the father/son relationship is central to the book and at the heart of it is the awful pathos of Arvidís fatherís ignominious death.
This is a man who was an athlete, someone who pushed himself beyond his limits who ďhad trained to make his body into a crowbar, a vaulting pole to break free with and be lifted by. He had worn tracks into mountainsides on his way up and on his way down to strengthen his legs to get better on the football pitch, on the ski run and in the boxing ring..Ē, yet who, despite not ever being fast enough to achieve the glory for which he longed, went on training and trying until he was able to endure anything. His expectations for his sons are, of course, unrealistically high and, inevitably, they donít live up to them Ė at least not in the way he would have liked.

In his description of these few days in Arvidís life and the memories that haunt him, Petterson reveals the dynamics of this relationship in all its complexity. He is a wonderful writer and skilled enough that, with a few impressionistic phrases, we understand the damage of Arvidís fatherís legacy and how anger, fear, love and tenderness can still cohabit in the heart of his injured son.

This is an intensely sad book, yet it is not without hope. There is comfort and the possibility of healing in the simple warmth of Mrs Grinde and his Kurdish neighbour and the melancholy beauty of the Norwegian landscape.

Read our interview with Per Petterson.


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