In the Wake by Per Petterson

inthewake.jpgOne of the perils of reading books for review is that you lose some of the enjoyment by concentrating on what you will say in the review (or making sure you have something to say). While this does affect me on occasion (I more often feel pressure to read every book someone sends me), I generally don’t have this problem. Because I don’t get paid to write reviews I don’t approach fiction any different than if I were just reading for myself. The problem with this strategy – if you can call it that – is that on occasion I read a book, enjoy it, and then have very little intelligent to say about it.

Such is the case with In The Wake by Per Petterson. Looking for slim fiction to take on vacation I grabbed this novel translated from Norwegian and read it siting by the lake watching the kids play. I enjoyed reading it and appreciated the author’s skill, but it didn’t have the emotional impact on me that it seemed to have on other reviewers. Perhaps the idyllic lakeside setting was a bit too comfortable and thus created a barrier between me and the psychological struggles of Petterson’s protagonist.

For whatever reason, I just can’t seem to get my thoughts together on this book. And as time passes I will lose whatever perspective I did have. So once again allow me to cheat and use snippets of other reviews to help communicate the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

First, lets turn to Publishers Weekly for the brief summary:

In his impressive American debut, veteran Norwegian novelist Petterson chronicles Arvid Jansen’s breakdown in the six years since his parents and brother were killed in a ferry accident (modeled after the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia). Arvid wanders around Oslo and through the Norwegian countryside, sifting through memories of his stern, ultracompetent father and nursing an infatuation with his attractive neighbor, Mrs. Grinde. After Arvid’s architect brother attempts suicide, Arvid tries to reconnect with him and pull them both out of the abyss. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Arvid is a witty, self-deprecating narrator who fought with his family while they were alive and misses them terribly now that they’re gone. This novel won several literary prizes in Europe, where the Estonia disaster is well known. The events may not feel as immediate to American readers, but many will find Arvid’s path of loss and redemption affecting nonetheless.

Maybe it was my disconnection to the Estonia tragedy that undermined the book’s immediacy for me. I did find Arvid to be an entertaining narrator but I am not sure I found his “path of loss and redemption affecting.”

The New York Times had a nice review by S. Kirk Walsh. Walsh argues:

Mr. Petterson convincingly portrays a character untethered by the relentless force of grief and guilt. (Arvid was supposed to be on the boat with his family.) Since the accident his wife has divorced him and he rarely sees his two young daughters.

He seldom speaks to others, with the exception of antagonistic phone conversations with David, his older brother and last remaining family member. The unfinished draft of his most recent novel collects dust next to his computer.

The premise of “In the Wake” may call to mind the fiction of Paul Auster, particularly “The Book of Illusions,” in which a man loses his wife and two sons in a plane crash. The subject of grief is no stranger to literature, propelling characters into unexpected situations and surprising actions, but what separates Mr. Petterson from others who have written on this theme is his ability to immerse the reader in Arvid’s dislocated state of loss and isolation.

I agree that “Petterson convincingly portrays a character untethered by the relentless force of grief and guilt” and that he displays an “ability to immerse the reader in Arvid’s dislocated state of loss and isolation.” Where Walsh loses me is where he claims that “‘In the Wake’ is, among other things, a story about literature itself, about its power to illuminate grief and inspire resilience.” And that “Petterson demonstrates, through his own commanding art, the solace of the written word as well as the necessity of human connection.”

The book just didn’t strike me like that. I have read Book of Illusions, but don’t think the comparison is apt. Auster is complex and multi-layered; symbolism on top of symbolism. Petterson is more sparse and minimalist. Auster doesn’t always work for me either, but there is a sense of depth there that I didn’t find in Petterson.

In the Wake just sort of drops you into Arvid’s world – or into his mind – and allows you to follow along as the character attempts to find his way out of the emotional void he seems to be trapped in. You meet Arvid six years after the tragedy and follow him for a short period of time. Walsh notes that Petterson “accomplishes this by using an elliptical — and often poetic — first-person voice instead of conventional straight-ahead storytelling.” The problem for me was that while Petterson skillfully captured Arvid’s grief, guilt, dislocation, the overall impact seemed anti-climactic. A few references to a character’s writers block or his reading important books doesn’t, for me, add up to a book about the literature or the “solace of the written word.” Petterson hints at all of this but never really ties it together. Maybe that was the point – that there are no neat easy solutions; that life is messy and difficult but we need each other to survive.

In the end, I think this comes down to taste. I lean a little more toward the plot and meaning side of things than others might. In the Wake seems more likely to appeal to those looking for creative and skillful use of language and style than with plot or traditional narrative structure. I don’t always need a strong plot to keep me interested, but in this case the work’s sparse and elliptical style left me looking for a little more structure.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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