“Petterson’s language is immaculate.”
I Refuse, Per Petterson’s elegant and mournful new novel, comes to us wrapped in jacket art of starkest white. There are smudgy trees on a thin horizon below the title text. There are two tiny human beings beneath the trees, standing far apart. Perhaps these penciled men are taking steps, one toward the other. Perhaps if one of them calls the other can listen.
Perhaps. It is there, on the cover. It is there, throughout.
I Refuse is a novel tipped toward the aching unknown, the near collision, the almost forgiven. It is a stunning lesson in the management of fictive time, a book that moves across voices and seasons, regrets and minor exhalations of love.
Two men—former childhood friends—catch a quick glimpse of one another as the story begins. Jim is fishing in ragged clothes. Tommy is driving by in his grey Mercedes, the “paintwork . . . shiny as skin can be shiny at certain times, in certain situations.” They haven’t seen each other in years, these men. Something bad clearly has happened. They could re-run the facts, throw a life rope to each other, but their conversation is brief, the fish aren’t biting much, and Tommy moves on.
The reader doesn’t. In the short span of this quiet prefatory, the reader is bruised with the need to know. What is the history of this friendship? How have Tommy and Jim separately managed losses and memory over the course what seems to have been terrible time?
And what was so terrible about their time?
Turn the pages, or let them turn themselves. I promise they will. Time is jagged here. Many voices tell the story. The brutality is both quiet and raw. The missed opportunities are staggering. And while it may seem as if Tommy has had it worst of all—his mother abandoning him and his three siblings, his father hitting them all until they bruised and bled, the foster care system shattering any remaining bonds—it’s Jim’s past that carries an even greater burden. It’s Jim who can’t crawl away from the hurt.
Petterson, best known for Out Stealing Horses, which deservedly took the world by storm in 2007, is unsparing in his depiction of broken lives. He prefers the stark landscape of his Norway. He doesn’t bow to popular notions of hope. He portrays his characters through long twisted sentences, not to be pretty, not to be literary, but because that is how hurt sounds and confusion speaks.
Here, for example, is Tommy facing the rage of his inconsolable father:
“There was nothing that could hold him back, and he sent me smack against the wall again, and the air flew out of my mouth in a groan drawn from the farthest reaches of my body, but I didn’t want to feel anything, and I didn’t want to hear anything, and I filled my head with a dream that my father could not see, and it worked, it truly did.”
One reads this book with a hand pressed to one’s heart. One reads it and hears the deepest silence. If it is true that each character sounds much like the other characters here, it is also true that landscape and shared memory shape people and language.
Petterson’s language is immaculate.