Per Petterson's Norway is dark and joyless.

So are his characters, who are often stepping into darkness or out of darkness and who all have dark under their eyes. Sometimes the darkness is "all-consuming", especially when two people get as close to one another as it is possible to imagine. At the end of this crisp but flawed realist novel there is an inconsequential character who has a dark laugh. I Refuse, the seventh Petterson novel to be published in English, opens with a one word sentence: "dark".

The plot is simple enough, and full of loose ends. This is fine; real life does not normally tie itself into a happy bright bow. The reader is flung back and forth across a 40-year chasm. On one side are the 1960s and early 1970s, and on the other is 2006. These years are seen from multiple perspectives, but the main character is Tommy. He grows up in the rural town of Mork. His mother escapes her violent husband, leaving the children to live alone with their primitive father.

Once Tommy is a teenager he fights back. His father disappears when he can no longer play the role of dominant male. Tommy is left to look after his three young sisters, but the state authorities - a strange blend of uncaring and inefficient - split up the siblings. They are doled out to different families in the local area, but there is not much holding individuals together in this community. The local Christians are altruistic in a dour, pessimistic sort of way. It is almost how one imagines Scotland must have been under the rigidities of Calvinism.

Tommy survives this potentially lonely period with the help of his friend Jim, a long-haired socialist, who wears "flared hipster pants" and a "reefer jacket". There are some beautifully crafted scenes between the two of them. Jim, however, is in a minority in this town. The Norway depicted is of a country that stoically resisted any temptation to turn on, tune in and drop out. Like the local mill owner, who "only saw the use in everything", the country is bland and utilitarian. As the 1960s become the 1970s Jim develops psychological difficulties and is sectioned. He is a synecdoche of the lost hope that washed up in the early years of that decade. "The 1960s were gone anyway. It was over," the narrator reflects, after The Beatles' split. Eventually, Jim's mother leaves town, and takes her son with her.

Over the course of one weekend in September 2006, Tommy encounters Jim and his father again. Tommy has not seen his best friend in the intervening years, and has only glimpsed his father once, from a distance. This highly contrived plot device sticks out as glaringly as the brief moments of joy. But it does allow Tommy a welcome moment of poetic reflection: "is time like an empty sack you can stuff any number of things into, does it never go from here to there, but instead in circles, round and round, so that every single time the wheel has turned you are back where you started." Petterson, for some reason, does not like question marks.

The characters do find their previous lives revisiting them, but they are brief and transitory meetings. Why would it be otherwise in a world that is cold and ruthless and - let us not forget - dark? This gloomy outlook is mirrored in Petterson's style, which favours clear declaratives, sometimes piling them up like snowdrifts. I Refuse reads like Hemingway, except with more similes and a tendency occasionally to insert whole sentences as sub-clauses. The prose glissades forward as if on ice for most of the novel. Sometimes, however, it stalls and has to clamber along during dialogue. The annoying tendency to constantly clarify the speaker in two-person conversations provides most of the stumbling blocks.

The refutation of Petterson's title is perhaps in each individual characters' ability merely to survive in this barren world, and in refusing to be ground down by the relentless logic of a mechanical and impersonal existence. It is all quite futile though. Growing up and growing old is a long process of isolation. You might find your past out on the empty frozen tundra but it will be dark and unhappy, just like the present.