In his eighth novel, "Men in My Situation," Norwegian writer Per Petterson returns to familiar narrative territory with an untethered middle-aged protagonist who has endured incalculable loss — deaths in his immediate family as well as the dissolution of his marriage and near-estrangement from his three young daughters.
In the opening pages of this memorable first-person novel, the reader meets Petterson's recurring character, Arvid Jansen: It has been a year since his wife, Turid, left the somewhat-famous author and two years since a ferry tragedy took the lives of his parents and brothers. In many ways, Arvid is rudderless, restless and colorless. All of this is reflected in the interior and exterior landscapes of the narrative and in the prose itself, which is largely made up of long run-on sentences that begin one place and end in another.
Readers of Petterson's books — his most well known novel being the bestseller "Out Stealing Horses" (2005) — will be acquainted with these themes of unspeakable grief and isolation as much of the author's fiction circles around the tragedy that defined his life: In 1990, Petterson lost his parents and a brother and a nephew when they were aboard an Oslo-to-Frederikshavn ferry that caught fire, killing 159 people. Similar to his other novels, grief runs beneath much of his prose, like a steady pulse. Other times, it hovers, like an abiding ghost, in the margins.
With "Men in My Situation," Petterson deepens his examination of grief by animating how a parent's loss, depression and trauma can be passed from one generation to the next. Tension, sadness and tenderness arise quietly — and sometimes, not so quietly — in Arvid's interactions with his daughters.
"I felt the warmth spread through my body," the narrator reflects while sipping whiskey, "and remained sitting on the threshold for I don't remember how long, with my eyes closed and the back of my head leaning against the door frame, listening to the girls breathing inside the dark room, each in her own rhythm, each in her own silent light."
There are a number of ways the author could have manipulated the reader's sympathies for Arvid's actions (he gets into a car accident with his children and has several encounters with female strangers), but instead the reader is left up to her own decisions, shifting her alliances with various characters from scene to scene.
The protagonist's isolation and silence of never-ending grief are not merely passive states, but also shape his children and who they later become. These complex moments present a kind of tenderness as well as another shade of loss. Ultimately, Petterson provides an honest portrait of how one family unravels — and hopefully is put back together again, albeit in a different configuration.
S. Kirk Walsh is the author of "The Elephant of Belfast."
Men in My Situation
By: Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Ingvild Burkey.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 304 pages, $26.