Admirers of Norwegian Per Petterson’s melancholy, atmospheric novels like Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia will welcome this story of two boyhood friends from a small town outside Oslo and the unexpected paths their lives trace after those early days. Featuring the same deep attention to character and introspective style of his earlier works, I Refuse confirms Petterson’s status as a standout among contemporary novelists.
The action of I Refuse encompasses a broad swath of time, a technique Petterson characteristically has employed to explore how long-ago events resonate in the present. Early on a September morning in 2006, Tommy Berggren encounters his friend Jim, whom he hasn’t seen for more than 35 years, fishing off an Oslo bridge. From that chance meeting the novel flashes back four decades to the town of Mørk, where Tommy and his three sisters live with their abusive father, abandoned by his wife. While Tommy overcomes his troubled childhood to become a successful, if emotionally remote, businessman, Jim, a self-professed socialist, struggles with panic attacks that reduce him to depending on disability payments.
Petterson relies on a variety of narrative voices, both first and third person, to tell this story. He’s especially effective depicting the quotidian moments of boyhood, and in illuminating the relationship between teenagers Tommy and Jim, two boys “so close to each other that there might be some current between them, an electric arc that made one feel what the other felt.”
Few writers can surpass Petterson’s skill in employing a narrative technique that’s distinctive for its confidence, and his readers will relish the opportunity to fill in gaps from what’s only hinted at on the page. Couple that with the psychological acuity of his storytelling and it’s clear why his novels, for all their surface bleakness, are so deeply satisfying.