My best books of 2014 – Petterson’s I Refuse is the worthy winner!

Being pregnant can be the best thing to happen to an avid reader – I read for hours at a time during my final stages of pregnancy at the beginning of 2014 and managed to catch up on quite a bit of my reading list. Having a baby, on the other hand, demands extreme creativity when it comes to reading. After a few weeks of watching re-runs of Australia’s My Kitchen Rules and crazily missing books, I worked out that I could read on the Kindle while breastfeeding my baby, and my reading Odyssey was resumed.

So, my year in books. First off, my Nordic obsession. I started off with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death In The Family, an autobiographical account of the author’s relationship with his father, and that got me hooked onto the rest of the series – A Man In Love and Boyhood Island. This brilliant sequence had me glued to the Kindle for days as I immersed myself into Norwegian and Swedish life. Knausgaard’s style of extreme frankness has sparked controversial opinions both in Norway and internationally. Should authors reveal all? Should they go into quite so much detail? Should they be afraid of offending the people who have played a part in the story that the writers are telling? I think that writing has to disregard fears, including the fear of being judged or disapproved of. Reading A Death In The Family was a sort of hypnotic experience. We are all curious, we all look into the uncurtained windows when we walk past, and Knausgaard provides exactly that – an opportunity to see a family in its most mundane, most embarrassing, and also most human.

But eventually, my family were growing tired of constant references to Scandinavia and my declarations of love for all things Nordic, including Ikea and my favourite book of all times Karlsson On The Roof by Astrid Lindgren (buy it for your kids – it is amazing!). Besides, the description of Knausgaard’s childhood obsession with keeping himself constipated on purpose proved too much for a heavily pregnant woman, so I moved on.

I caught up with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Coetzee’s Summertime and Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light (which still haunts me with its beautiful sadness), then Zadie Smith’s N-W and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Patrick Modiano’s Rue Des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person in English translation) and a few more, including Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles which was published over forty years after being written – read my review of this brilliant novel here.

So here’s my three winners:

3. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death In The Family

2. Joseph O’Connor’s The Thrill Of It All about a fictional band and the delicate relationships between its members had me sneaking in reading time whenever I could – not easy with a hardback when you have a wriggly baby in your arms! (read the full review here).

1. And yet Scandinavia held an unbeatable attraction for me this year – my most favourite book of the year was I Refuse by Per Petterson, closely followed by his earlier work Out Stealing Horses (review coming soon). I Refuse, at first glance a story of an abandoned friendship, is a poetic, complex exploration of family and what it represents. The frame story of the novel is the friendship between Tommy and Jim. Years ago, they were as close as brothers. Now they meet by accident on a bridge, after decades of absence from each other’s lives. It is evident that they both still live in the past, are still trying to make sense of the trajectory that their childhoods had forced onto the rest of their lives. Tommy is the eldest of four siblings, and it had to be up to him to deal with their violent father after their mother had walked out of their lives one winter morning. Jim had never known his father, and still longs for him to appear in his life which feels empty as he picks up strangers at a local hotel bar and struggles to remember their names afterwards. There was one that Jim would probably like to see again but he has forgotten her address, and no matter how many times he drives out to Hemnes, the area where she lives, he cannot find the right house. He isn’t even sure that he hasn’t dreamt her up.

Petterson’s favourite themes of family and loneliness are very much present in I Refuse, and so is his
intricate, puzzle-like plot which begs a second read as much for its complexity as for its poetic language and fascinating characters. Petterson is known for his style of mixing realism with lyricism in long, labyrinthine sentences. The often overlapping narrative interweaves the banal with the significant, creating a ‘stream of conscience’ style. The abundance of mundane details is so perfectly reflective of how memories usually are, of what we tend to remember  – what the weather was like, and a random thought about someone’s shoes, and somebody’s whole background story in a word or two, and what we were thinking at the time but not what we said, and not what their face looked like. As we dip in and out of Tommy and Jim’s memories, as well as occasional reflections from Tommy’s sister Siri, the small details add up to create a novel that is rich and complex, and deeply pleasurable to read. (Read the full review here)

What were your favourite books this year?

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Elizabeth Harrower’s In Certain Circles – my review on Necessary Fiction

 My review has just gone live on Necessary Fiction – read it here

In Certain Circles was written in 1971, the last novel Elizabeth Harrower would write to date. By then she was the author of four other novels, including The Watch Tower, all very successful and well-received, and Harrower was being likened to Patrick White and Christina Stead. But In Certain Circles was to have a different fate. Harrower withdrew it from publication at the last minute, explaining in an interview later that the book had felt forced and had been written because a grant had become available. “There are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written,” she said about the novel. Read more

The Thrill Of It All by Joseph O’Connor

Some might read The Thrill Of It All as the memoir of a fictional band. It seems to me instead, or more so, to be a story of love, friendship and loneliness.
Robbie is a second-generation Irish teenager growing up in 80’s Luton. He has a brother and a dead sister, an absence that is present throughout the book as if a character of its own. Soon after starting his studies at The Poly, Robbie meets Fran, the future lead singer of their future band. Meeting Fran brings focus to a life that until then largely consisted of winding up Robbie’s parents whom he defiantly calls Jimmy and Alice. ‘My hobby became Fran-watching,’ he says, and later he quotes Montaigne: ‘If you press me to tell why I loved him, I can only say very little. It was because he was he, and I was I.’ As it often happens, the main events of Robbie’s life come as a giant wave when he is barely out of childhood, and after the wave has receded, the rest of his life is spent dealing with the aftermath. Fran and Robbie, plus Robbie’s crush Trez and her brother Sean, form a band, spend ages getting it off the ground, tour for free, sleep in the car to save money, play to audiences who couldn’t care less. They hit success, life seems to be about to start. And then Fran leaves. Gone to pursue his own fame.read on

I Refuse by Per Petterson

I Refuse was first published in Norway in September 2012 under the title Jeg Nekter and became an instant hit there, just like Per Petterson’s previous novels Out Stealing Horses and I Curse The River Of Time. Its English translation is by Don Bartlett.
The frame story of the novel is the friendship between Tommy and Jim. Years ago, they were as close as brothers. Now they meet by accident on a bridge, after decades of absence from each other’s lives. It is evident that they both still live in the past, are still trying to make sense of the trajectory that their childhoods had forced onto the rest of their lives. Tommy is the eldest of four siblings, and it had to be up to him to deal with their violent father after their mother had walked out of their lives one winter morning. Jim had never known his father, and still longs for him to appear in his life which feels empty as he picks up strangers at a local hotel bar and struggles to remember their names afterwards. There was one that Jim would probably like to see again but he has forgotten her address, and no matter how many times he drives out to Hemnes, the area where she lives, he cannot find the right house. He isn’t even sure that he hasn’t dreamt her up.read on