It's Fine By Me, By Per Petterson trs Don Bartlett

A boy who just wants to be Hemingway

Per Petterson's style is blunt and pragmatic with sudden moments of poetic flight.

These shifts between the sparse and lyrical suit the temperament of his protagonists, who are generally terse, stoic Norwegian men. His elegant, unpretentious prose found an international audience with the publication of his novel Out Stealing Horses in 2003, and his subjects and perspective have remained much the same since his breakthrough.

Petterson characters resemble Camus narrators in that their bodily senses are most immediate; are how they relate to their surroundings. Their focus is on their aches after a day of repetitive factory work, the feel and taste of a hastily rolled cigarette, the pain of Scandinavian winters cracking their hands.

In It's Fine By Me, we follow Audun Sletten, a 13-year-old outsider with an abusive, now absent father, a weary disregard for authority whether at school or church, and a lust for knowledge. Audun is a typical Petterson creation in that he is totally absorbed in the present, in the landscape – "the brilliant blue autumn sky, the yellow ridges, yes, every leaf up close and binocular-sharp in the limpid air" – yet is not immune to being yanked back into his grim past. These flashbacks weave in and out, unbroken and undifferentiated from Audun's daily existence; it is as though every moment of his life is happening continuously, all at once. Audun's memories of running away as a 10-year-old are as real to him as his weekend fumblings with neighbourhood girls.

The book is a period piece, set in the late Sixties and early Seventies, though the references to pop culture can feel somewhat shoe-horned in. A discussion of Jimi Hendrix between schoolfriends seems stilted, adding retro colour and little else, although a passage where Audun's mother drunkenly compels him to watch a Fred Astaire film is better judged. More interesting and convincing are Audun's nerdier obsessions; his desire to emulate the life of Jack London, or to write like Hemingway does in A Moveable Feast.

The central fault in It's Fine By Me is an absence. Audun is a typical adolescent with literary ambition – which vaguely intellectual teenage boy hasn't sat with a Moleskin notebook and a pressing desire to tell it like it is? Audun is ultimately unremarkable, an Identikit coming-of-age cipher, and Petterson's writing isn't quite accomplished enough to transform the ordinary into the compelling.

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