The irony is that nothing's fine with this boy at all.

Set just outside Oslo in the early 1970s (when the author would have been about the same age as his central character), this is a sombre, sparsely written novel about the coming-of-age of one Audun Sletten. He's a proud, uncompromising and very private boy, who made up a story about having scarred eyes on his first day at a new school as an excuse to keep his sunglasses on.

Petterson's portrayal of Audun is an affecting study of alienation. Audun's father was a vicious drunk with a gun in his drawer, a man whose benders were so extreme that a drinking buddy once deposited him outside the family home in the bucket of a tractor. His father disappeared five years earlier, which was a great relief to the family, but Audun still can't shake off the impact of his cruelty, the recent death of his brother damaging him more severely still. He's tough, and his anguish sporadically explodes into violence. What's more, his father has returned to the periphery of his life, a black-garbed figure in the distance.

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Plot-wise, not a great deal happens. It's an introspective novel about Audun trying to come to terms with the hand fate has dealt him, but without much of a clue how. He quits school because he wants to be like Jack London, to become a writer by taking on manual work, living by his wits and experiencing the roughness of life. Petterson, in fact, does the Jack London thing well. His depiction of the printing plant Audun works in is notable for its realistic air of griminess and tension as well as an intimate technical knowledge.

Like his protagonist Audun, Petterson sticks to Hemingway's axiom, "Write the truest thing that you know," and turns in an understated, low-key story stripped of florid prose but suffused with a melancholic mood so deep his rare shafts of humour can never quite cut through it.

An ending that's hopeful but not trite marks closure of a kind, but Petterson makes no false promises about the road that lies ahead.


Per Petterson

Vintage, £7.99