It’s tempting to think of reading the pocket-sized Ashes in my mouth, sand in my shoes in one sitting, but that would be an injustice to the writing inside it. Per Petterson’s first book (predating his first novel Echoland and I think 5 other works so far published in the UK) is a collection of short stories starring Arvid Janson, who will become a regular character in Petterson’s storytelling.
Arvid, who Petterson describes in one interview as his ‘stuntman’, is a child at this point; Ashes in my mouth, sand in my shoes is really a series of snapshots taken from his childhood moments. At the start of the book he’s 6 and a half; sometime later he is 8. He’s maybe a bit young for this to be described as a coming of age story / stories, but by the end he’s definitely harbouring more mature preoccupations than in the earlier stories.
Set in a working class suburb of Oslo in the 1960s, Arvid’s world consists of family, school friend and neighbours. His father loses his job, his parents argue with Uncle Rolf, his grandfather dies, he breaks into a barn with his schoolfriends. Arvid narrates these events with clear, sparse, bordering on surreal commentary. His conclusions from the events capture the hazy understanding and alternative logic of childhood. It’s writing you should savour, digesting each morsel before moving onto the next passage.
In spite of this I found the book a little disappointing. Petterson has been feted for his original thinking and for the interesting rhythm and scope of his phrases, but that kind of complexity is largely absent here. And though it sounds by all means as if he went on to write more sophisticated things, while reading Ashes in my mouth, sand in my shoes there was a little voice in the back of my head which I couldn’t shut up, which was asking “So what?”.
Any cop? A difficult one – by the sounds of it Petterson’s later books are more interesting, so maybe start with some of his other work and come back to this if it turns you into a diehard fan.