I Refuse by Per Petterson; trans. Don Bartlett, book review: Coming together at the crossroads


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The Independent Culture

'I refuse' is a poignant, melancholic novel about the bonds forged and broken between friends and family members by the acclaimed Norwegian novelist Per Petterson.

As fishermen gathered along the suspension bridge that connects an island with mainland, two middle-aged men clasp eyes on each other for the first time in 30 years. Tommy and Jim were childhood best friends; they knew each other "through and through". Jim, an only child, lives alone with his Christian mother. Tommy, by comparison, is the oldest of four children; there's his sister Siri and the twins, too young to remember their mother before she walked on out them, leaving them in the charge of their father, a brutish garbage man who kicks his children's buttocks raw.

After one particularly savage attack, Tommy has enough: he takes a bat and breaks his father's leg. The man crawls from the house, disappearing from his children's lives, and the siblings are separated when social services rehouse them. Jim has problems of his own; an early suicide attempt occasions a spell in a psychiatric hospital, and more recent panic attacks have meant he's been signed off sick from his job for the past year.

Both characters are at a crossroads in their lives, tethered to memories of events that made them the men they are today – stories, of course, that are wound together and then spun far apart in rhythm with the gulf that widens between the friends as they grow up and drift apart. Somehow each of them lost direction along the way: "I had not paid attention," Jim describes it. "I had been looking to the wrong side, and in the rear-view mirror I could see I had already gone too far and everyone I saw was a stranger to me."

This complex relationship each of them has with their history is reflected in the fragmentary structure of the novel, which jumps between past and present, and from the perspective of protagonist to protagonist – and it's not just Tommy and Jim; Tommy's sister Siri, his guardian Jonson, and even his long absent mother are all given a voice. Yet despite this apparent confusion, what emerges is a cohesive and moving story of a group of lost souls, all struggling to exert some control over their lives.