‘A brilliant study of memory’ – I Refuse by Per Petterson

irppI 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.

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.

Any Cop?: I Refuse is a brilliant study of memory, poetic in its juxtaposition of the vague with the precise, and of the ordinary with the life-defining.

Maia Nikitina


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