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Ashes In My Mouth, Sand In My Shoes

posted on 04 Jun 2017

Ashes In My Mouth, Sand In My Shoes by Per Petterson

Norwegian novelist, Per Petterson’s breakthrough novel was the 2005 Out Stealing Horses which collected a number of awards including the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was named one of the 10 best books of the year in the 9 December 2007 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Having hit his stride he followed this up in 2008 with I Curse The River of Time which featured the 37 year old Arvid Jansen coming to terms with the impending death of his mother.

However, this wasn’t Arvid’s first appearance in Petterson’s work and in 2013 Harvill Secker published a English translation of Ashes In My Mouth, Sand In My Shoes which was the novelist’s first book originally released in Norway in 1987.

This short book is really a collection of beautifully observed and imagined vignettes in the childhood of Arvid. What we get here will be immediately recognisable to anyone who has looked back on events in their past and wondered at how they saw the world as a child. As Arvid grows older and begins to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the world, puzzling events start to fall into place as the adult world begins to take shape for him. The book scopes the years from about age 6 to age 9 and in that time Arvid moves from a sort of passive bewilderment to someone on the fringe of his own entry into the world of the grown-up.

Each little episode can almost stand as a short story in its own right but that would diminish the impact of the whole. These stories need to be linked by their common threads in order to have the impact the collection as a whole offers the reader. It’s no surprise to find that one of Petterson’s literary heroes is Raymond Carver because his influence is stamped all over this collection.

Through Arvid’s eyes Petterson asks how we come to terms with that moment when we stop seeing our parents just as mom and dad but as real people with all the strengths and weaknesses that go along with that. In the opening story A Man Without Shoes the child witnesses the desperate disappointment of his father when his job as a real artisan, a shoemaker, has to be sacrificed in favour as a soulless manufacturing job making toothbrushes. In People Are Not Animals Arvid is forced to start to come to terms with the brutal facts of life as his cruel schoolmates taunt him about the truth of sex and Today You Must Pray To God confronts the fear of nuclear war as his teacher prepares him and his classmates for the impending devastation likely to rain down on them as a result of the Cuban missile crisis.

But by some distance my favourite vignette is Fatso in which Arvid makes a mortal enemy of his next door neighbour.  Bomann is a drunk who argues wildly with his wife and goes missing when he’s on his binges – he’s also got a disgustingly huge beer belly that fascinates and repels Arvid. Everyone calls Bomann ‘Fatso’ but not to his face; that is everyone except Arvid who is the only one brave enough to use his nickname all the time. The two hate each other with a passion. One day a pathetically drunk Bomann asks a favour of Arvid and offers the boy a truce, a rapprochement of sorts, but the youngster does the favour but rejects  the offer of a grudging friendship.

This was a vivid and delightful read and all the better for being unexpected. Petterson has captured the essence of the adult’s reflections on a child’s fractured understanding of the world and successfully shows how the sharp edges of our experiences rub up against each other until they settle into a bigger picture we can recognise as the real world and our place in it.

Terry Potter

June 2017