Per Petterson, In The Wake


I don’t remember where I picked up this book but I’m glad I did.   I’ve previously read – and reviewed – the 2007 Impac Prize-winning novel, Out Stealing Horses by the same author, Per Petterson.   This book is far, far superior.

This surprised me.   Those that know me best know that I am absolutely against fiction-as-autobiography.   Autobiography IS fiction.   In choosing to write as one genre or another, a writer is signalling a level of honesty with their readers.   Think about it: would you trust a friend who was continually revealed to be a liar?   Or, knowing that a friend is the definition of honesty are you even more enthralled by the stories they tell of heart-ache, close-scrapes and daring-do?   If you publish a novel, you are in effect declaring that you have put the effort into creating a fictional story.   Knowing some details of the author’s personal life, it is not unreasonable to assume that there has been some ‘cross-over’.

The main character in this novel is a man called Arvid.   Arvid, like his creator, Per Petterson, worked as a bookseller for years and is now an author.   Both are middle-aged.  Both have divorced their first wives… the comparisons go on and not least to the tragic core of the novel.

Arvid is lost, he thinks he knows this intimately but then Arvid, like drunks, addicts and depressives the world over, hasn’t reached the bottom yet.   Arvid is lost because the people he loved most in the world have died in a tragic accident and were literally lost at sea.

Petterson’s parents, brother and nephew died on the night of 7 April 1990 when a ferry was set on fire by an arsonist on the overnight sailing from Oslo, Norway to Frederikshavn, Denmark in which 159 people lost their lives (for more see here).   It was not just the fire which was started around 2am on one of the decks that caused so many deaths: the extremely flammable decorative coverings in the cabins produced the highly toxic gases hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide when burned.

Over the course of the novel, Arvid and his (apparently) more stable older brother will slowly turn to face the full horror of the tragedy which they were accidental witnesses to when watching the morning news on TV.   It is, however, where the novel begins that truly sets the novel apart from the tawdry man-has-mid-life crisis nonsense that we are used to seeing nominated for prizes.

Arvid has returned to a place he was happiest and most content: a bookshop.   It is early morning and locked.   Between the repeated and frustrated kicks of the door as Arvid gazes at the bookshelves through the window, we slowly learn about him and he is a wholly different sort of man to his author.   This is quite an old device that writers can use when conjuring up character: think of it as being like the beats on a bass drum a Kinks song or a marching band’s song of lament at the lowering of a flag.

Per Petterson does not write in an artificial manner and neither is his writing style fashionable.   He is a writer to admire because he has obviously learned his craft over many years and does not make his style fit the story, he does not flit about between characters and different points-of-view as lesser (let us be honest, British) writers do.   This is a novel where the reader follows the protagonist into the inferno.   It is therefore what most contemporary fiction does not even aspire to be: a story.

Petterson writes line-by-line with slow deliberation, bringing forth the external world in spare but very descriptive language:

I do not wait for the lift, but make for the stairs, and there are many floors, six or seven, or maybe eight, I seem to lose count, and I more or less run the whole way down, and it’s like sinking, and there is hardly anyone on those stairs.  Only once there are two men coming slowly up, side by side, step by step, and they talk and look at each other, and I do not want to go round them, to change direction, it is too much trouble, so I aim right between them. There is really not enough room, so I snarl:
“Out of the fucking way,” and push the one the left in the shoulder.  He curses and I hear them stop and feel them staring at my back.  But I do not stop.
On the ground floor, I stop running, but I still walk quickly, I can out-walk most people if I decide to, and through the big hall I slacken speed so much it almost looks normal.  It is crowded with people and all the tables are taken.  That is all right by me.  I am on my way out.

This happens on the way out of a hospital.   Arvid does not cry, does not shout but in every step of his passage, he is raging at the grief he feels for the near-miss at absolute loneliness.   His brother is lying sick upstairs, recovering after an attempted suicide but at no point did either man express all that they wanted to say which is to say, how much they – the surviving members of the family – mean to each other.

You can read an interview with the author Per Petterson here.

You can order the book from Amazon here.