three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-I Curse the River of TimeBest-selling Norwegian author Per Petterson, a former librarian, received widespread acclaim and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for Out Stealing Horses (4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2007). I Curse the River of Time, its title taken from a poem penned by Mao Tse-Tung, is a prequel of sorts to his novel In the Wake (2002).

The Story: "I wouldn't call him a grown-up," says 37-year-old Arvid Jansen's mother of her disappointing middle son. "That would be an exaggeration." Dumped by his wife and trapped in a dead-end factory job (the one he proudly took years before when he announced that he was dropping out of college to embrace Communism and join the proletariat), an already beleaguered Arvid receives some devastating news: his beloved, but distant, mother is dying of cancer. She hastily flees Oslo for her native Denmark, and he follows her, determined to repair their troubled relationship. But the decades of unspoken words and halfhearted gestures separating them may prove too great to surmount.
Graywolf Press. 224 pages. $23. ISBN: 9781555975562

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Norwegian novelist Per Petterson's spare and tactile prose captures the frigid beauty of Scandinavian landscapes and the similarly frozen emotional landscapes inside his characters as they struggle with loss, regret, and the complexities of love." Chuck Leddy

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"The words exchanged between the characters are certainly spare--even Arvid, besotted with love for his retreating wife and his sick mother, can't muster either the words or the actions to convey his feelings. But Petterson's language itself is vivid and lyrical, showing characters with a rich imaginative engagement with the world, even when they are at a loss to express it." Kristin Ohlson

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"This isn't a story about where Arvid and his mother are going. It's an exploration of where they have been. ... It is rare to read a novel about impending loss that steers so vehemently away from pathos." Darren Sextro

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Clear, colloquial and unadorned, the writing doubtless owes something to Hamsun and maybe just as much to Hemingway, who is invoked in the text a couple of times. ... [The sentences] evoke a landscape, mental and otherwise, that while a little wintry and severe, is appealing precisely because it's so off the beaten track." Charles McGrath

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Arvid, like many of Petterson's narrators, is much more astronaut than cowboy, an emotional rocket man floating through a life he no longer understands, searching the past for clues. It sounds bleak, but instead it's rather dreamy and tenuous, like the thoughts one has in the brief moment between sleeping and waking." Stacey D'Erasmo

Dallas Morning News 2 of 5 Stars
"While Out Stealing Horses has a terrific story--Norwegian resistance fighters during World War II--to go along with great descriptive writing, Curse the River is mainly about what's happening in Arvid's head. That's often muddled. ... Throughout, Arvid creates a narrative in his mind that doesn't match the reality around him." Gary Jacobson

Oregonian 2 of 5 Stars
"I Curse the River of Time has the same calm narrative thrust of Out Stealing Horses, but the narrator, Arvid Jansen, is such an irritating, self-indulgent fool that it's hard to find the story in all the misdirected cogitation. ... The tone of I Curse the River of Time replicates the appealing timbre of Out Stealing Horses, but the novel not only avoids the river of time, it also buries Arvid up to his knees in the mudflats of futility." John Strawn

Critical Summary

Described as "a master at writing the spaces between people" (Los Angeles Times), Petterson skillfully entwines past and present to create a vivid, heartrending portrait of a son's bungling, but sincere, love for his cold, unresponsive mother. Critics roundly praised Petterson's poetic language and unwavering rejection of sentimentality. Instead, he evokes a lovely sense of melancholy, movingly echoed in stark descriptions of the lonely Scandinavian landscape. Not all critics agreed, however, that I Curse the River of Time is a worthy successor to the best-selling Out Stealing Horses. The Oregonian deemed Arvid too unlikable, and the Dallas Morning News bemoaned his unreliability as a narrator. Nevertheless, quiet and character-driven, I Curse the River of Time is a novel to be savored, one which invites readers "to breathe deeply and slow down" (Kansas City Star).

Cited by the Critics

Hunger | Knut Hamsun, translated from the Norwegian by Robert Bly (1967): Widely considered a classic of modern European literature, this powerful character study by Nobel Prize laureate Knut Hamsun details an unnamed artist's descent into poverty and madness.