Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, By Per Petterson, Translated by Don Bartlett - Review


This is a small book that packs a punch. Arvid Jansen lives with his mother, father and sister, Gry, in early-1960s Sweden in the shadow of the Cold War – his Uncle Rolf hates communists. The family is poor, Dad is a factory worker and they live in a leaky tower block. Arvid is a frail, hyper-sensitive child who stays in bed for four days when told that nuclear war may end the world. His imaginative neuroses determine his actions – he smashes the clock to release the caged tiger because he can’t bear his mother ageing and, for him, six-and-a-half is “enough”.

His observations are acute – the faint smell of burning as his mother smooths her hair, cigarette in hand – and they confound adult preconceptions: his father’s song at bedtime makes him close his eyes because he wants it to stop, not because he likes it.

His dad, a brooding war veteran who is quick to anger, is the boy’s key influence – a macho man who tries to toughen up his puny son with cold showers, but who can also be tender.

Petterson’s style – smoothly translated by Don Bartlett – is stripped like a bleached Wallander landscape and leaves you no place to hide from Arvid’s all-too-vivid reality. You are gripped by a few simple words.