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BOOK REVIEW

A Scandinavian son faces loss and regret

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2010

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Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s spare and tactile prose captures the frigid beauty of Scandinavian landscapes and the similarly frozen emotional landscapes inside his characters as they struggle with loss, regret, and the complexities of love. Like Raymond Carver at his intricate best, Petterson illuminates the meanings behind the smallest gestures, the quiet moments in the aftermath of loss when the pain is so deep that it can’t be verbalized. Petterson writes a kind of post-traumatic fiction that dives into the depths and pulls from the wreckage dark and unforgettable treasures.

In Petterson’s heartbreaking “Out Stealing Horses,’’ we saw Trond Sander struggling to understand why his father had abandoned his family. The adult Sander is so devastated that he moves to a cabin: “I lost interest in talking to people,’’ he explains, and Petterson’s novel becomes a kind of gradual thawing. In his latest, “I Curse the River of Time,’’ Petterson explores the distant relationship between a mother dying of cancer and her adult son. Petterson’s narrator is Arvid Jansen, who hears that his mother is dying right in the middle of his own divorce. Arvid is rendered almost catatonic: “No act of will would get me out of this state. . . . At times, the only option was to sit in a chair and wait for the worst ravages to calm down so I could perform the most basic tasks, to cut a slice of bread, to go to the toilet.’’

As in “Out Stealing Horses,’’ Petterson’s narrative interweaves the past and present, both converging at the end in a way that seems inevitable and deeply satisfying. As a college student, Arvid had become a communist and then quit college to join the proletariat in factory work. His incensed mother, already working a dead-end factory job, had responded by calling him an idiot. Arvid becomes a study in alienation, learning to suppress his own pain: “I could swallow whatever hit me and let it sink as if nothing had happened . . . it looked like what I was doing had a purpose, but it did not.’’

Petterson’s prose contains a sneaky, insidious beauty. He describes a gorgeous weekend Arvid and his future wife spent together in a wilderness cabin, when his life seemed filled with promise. “[W]e lay as we always did, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, and the warmth seeped into my body from her body, and I had no idea what I did in all those years before I met her, where I took my warmth.’’ Arvid’s memory jumps from past to present in the chapter. As he narrates a splendid day spent in a rowboat with her, he concludes that, “it was impossible to grasp that in the end something so fine could be ground into dust.’’ At such moments, Petterson’s sentences can stop your breathing and leave tears welling up.

Arvid’s dying mother returns to her native Denmark, and Arvid follows her there. She is lost in grief and so is he, and in their pain they’re unable to bridge the deep waters that separate them. Arvid describes his relationship with her: “[A]s the years passed I became a lone rider, looking for uncertain ground, and I clung to her, did tricks for her, performed for her, pulled laughter out of her with my silly jokes.’’ Now that she’s disappearing, neither knows what to say.

Arvid is left to mull his own mortality, accepting that he hasn’t become the person he wanted to be. Petterson offers no moments of mother-son reconciliation, no sudden, tear-filled epiphanies. “I was searching for something very important, a very special thing,’’ Arvid says, “but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it.’’ Petterson’s readers will find that they’re in the hands of a master whose quiet, unforgettable voice leaves you yearning to hear more.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME By Per Petterson

Translated from Norwegian with Charlotte Barslund

Graywolf, 233 pp., $23