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on 22 October 2007
Fathers inevitably die, and it is their sons who follow after them. Our fathers do not always love us the way we think they should, but nor do we always love them the way they think we should, either. Arvid Jansen's father died six years ago, and it has taken him until now to realise that he has not, in fact, dealt with it at all. Worse, his wife and children have become estranged, and his brother's life is unravelling as much as his own. His life is disorientation, memory without hooks to hold them within his mind. He wakes, he eats, he sleeps, he forgets.

We meet Arvid in a very confused state. He has 'awoken' outside a bookstore, with dirty, scratched palms and a bruised eye. He can't remember much of how he arrived there, or why he chose to return to the store where he worked, years ago. He was an author of mild success, forgotten now, not immortalised in death like Yeats or Kafka or Schulz, as he might have wished.

The novel is written in a first person perspective, which allows us deep insight into Arvid's mind. Action trigger thoughts which trigger memories of times that have long passed, more often than not to do with his father, a strong, stubborn, emotionally withdrawn man who Arvid felt never quite connected with any of his sons. Any memory at all will invariably contain a reference to his father, a brief thought, a whispered lament, an essay-like discourse on regret.

'I close my eyes, I hear the wind in the treetops, and it is a good sound. I have heard it both summer and winter on hundreds of cross-country treks with my father, when we rested and my breath was not the only sound I could hear, and sometimes the wind in the treetops was the only things that was good.'

This is typical of Arvid's thoughts. He is wistful for life with his father, but strangely none of his memories come across as particularly pleasant. Perhaps that is why he remembers them with such force. He regrets not the father he had, but the father he wanted. Unfortunately for Arvid - and for every child who grows to become a man or woman - we are stuck with the father we receive, for better or worse. If we cannot quite figure out how to be a parent to our own children, then how dare we expect such achievements from them? But of course we do, and that is the crux of Petterson's novel, the second of his to be translated into English, and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a prize which he was to win in 2007 for his novel, Out Stealing Horses.

The novel is not only concerned with fathers. There is a strong current of loneliness which runs throughout. Arvid becomes involved with a young woman who lives in an apartment across from his own, they watch each other through their windows, communicating in silence. One particularly evocative scene happens shortly after they have become lovers. '...I see her turning and looking back at me, and we just stand there and then she lets her dressing gown drop ... Her skin shines dimly and is whiter than anything else I can see, and she lifts both hands and lays their palms against the pane, and then I do the same, lift my hands and lay the palms against the pane, and it's as if it was just that one window, a few millimetres of glass between her and me...' A metaphor for the entire novel, Arvid is a man who comes close to, but cannot quite, touch the lives of others, or be touched himself. He tries, but there is always that thin pane of glass between his fingers and theirs.

The novel is not without awkwardness, however. 'Give me any car at all, as long as it's a Japanese and begins with an m and ends with an a.' This sort of cleverness feels flat and forced - why not just say you like Mazda's? There are many little literary tricks scattered throughout this book, and most of them fall flat. They come across as being written by the author rather than thought by the character. However, it is worth wondering whether or not these stumbles are the fault of the author, or the translator. In the Wake could not be confused with a novel originally written in English, there are too many pages of writing that would be considered too 'flat'.

For all its loneliness, sadness, withdrawn emotions and awkward phrasings, Petterson's novel is worthy. It is not difficult to fall into the claustrophobic, introverted world of Arvid, and the journey is well worth the effort. While Arvid's issues with his father are not resolved - and how could they be, for he is dead - there is a sense that he is progressing towards something further in his life that could help him. Whether that is hitting 'rock bottom' with his suicidal brother, or embracing a woman he likes but not loves, we cannot know. But there is something happening within his breast, some stir of the heart that was not present at the beginning of the novel. Growth, then.
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on 29 June 2016
I need to reread this, as I feel I wasn't in the right frame of mind to read it the first time, and didn't give it the attention it deserves. There is the whole range of emotions here, and some beautifully understated observations. Probably best not to read if you are recently bereaved yourself, as the narrator's meandering journey through grief and guilt may be too close for comfort. There are some light touches, though, and the translation does not jar.
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on 30 October 2013
Really enjoyed Out Stealing Horses by the same author and read one other of his books which I also enjoyed. This however was very similar and told a similar tale which I suspect is party autobiographical. Probably unlikely to try anything else by Per Petterson
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on 14 July 2011
In poetic, measured prose Petterson explores semi (or mainly) autobiographical tragedy and its impact.Some of the most beautiful and precise descriptions of feeling, sensation and experience I have read.
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on 12 September 2014
Wonderful book. Having to reread to see if the magic is still there the second time. Heard an interview with the author on the radio so wasn't sure what his writing would be like. Just a magical story that I didn't want to end.
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on 27 February 2009
To begin a novel with a realisation of consciousness, of a man staring into his past through a glass pane makes for a dynamic, compulsive opening. And it is this theme of being displaced, out of time, somehow seperated, which runs through the plot. The motif of the glass pane returns again a little later as the protagonist, Arvid, tentatively involves himself with a woman and watches her as she watches him...so confirming the claustraphobia of their existences.

It would be easy to say that this is a novel about father/son relationships - Petterson does, afterall, sustain his narrative with memories of his dead father, but underlying this is a novel about testosterone-driven competitveness: take a look at the description of his father as strong and powerful, and then look at the way in which Arvid deals with his potential "step-son" - witty though it may be, it's about vying for attention in a very particulary (albeit rather stereotypically) masculine way. Underpinning this idea is the quirky narrative style and, as other reviewers have pointed out, it's a translated text so could be either author or translator's tactic. At times, however, there was a clunkiness about it which was a little distracting. However, in places, such an essentially insular, almost selfish stream of consciousness which nonetheless beautifully describes settings in Norway is almost bound to evoke some feeling in its readers. There is no doubt that the ice and snow symbolise a coldness and isolation within Arvid. The result is impressive enough to be evocative, to make you think about your own motivations and views about family (and other) relationships.
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on 18 February 2016
beautiful descriptions of the Norwegian countryside - lyrical in its telling, raw in parts but with great depth
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on 3 March 2015
a nice read, not his best but i still enjoyed it.
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on 20 July 2015
Can't get enough of this writer
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on 6 February 2015
First rate writer
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