Humane search for meaning: I Refuse by Per Petterson

Review: In charting a life of losses, this novel has much to say about the struggle to make sense of existence

I Refuse
I Refuse
Author: Per Petterson
ISBN-13: 9781846557811
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Guideline Price: £16.99

Jim is alone and lost, suffering from a malaise that shifts between apathy and a darker despair that takes the form of blackouts. He has, surprisingly, made it to his 50s and, having got a good job with the Oslo libraries, allowed it to all fall apart, again. But then life is like that, Jim’s in particular: he drifts between memory, panic and interludes of devastating clarity.

When he was a boy he had a great pal, Tommy. The two spent most of their time together yet were very different. Jim lived with his mother, a staunch Christian, and had never known his father, so instead he is haunted by a shadowy figure. Tommy did have a father, a brute of man, who, following his wife’s furtive departure, beat each of the four children, Tommy more than his three sisters. One day the boy, during a vicious attack triggered by a comment, managed to retaliate. He smashed his father’s leg with a baseball bat. It is shockingly described. The father disappeared without trace, causing the children to be separated, courtesy of social services.

Tommy, then almost 14, had gone, initially, to live with a friendly bachelor, Jonsen, who owned a mill. He stayed on and worked with him.

Siri, the sister nearest Tommy in age, was taken in by a family; the twin sisters, only six, went to live with an older couple, and they seemed to quickly forget that there had been a previous life, a violent father or a mother who had abandoned them. They even seemed to forget Tommy and would wave to him and walk on, safe in their very different new life.


Per Petterson's episodic sixth novel – the darkest yet from the author best known for Out Stealing Horses (2003), which won the 2007 International Impac Dublin Literary Award – looks at one man's freefall over close to 40 years. Jim is the main character, and he partly tells his story. Additional information is provided by the omniscient narrative, which consists of some of the finest writing Petterson has yet achieved.

There are secondary voices and viewpoints, most effectively that of Tommy, a true survivor who brings an edgy defiance to the novel; that of his sister Siri proves disappointingly laboured.

That said, despite the narrative unevenness, which suggests perhaps that, were he not quite so well established, Petterson would have been advised to concentrate on Jim and Tommy, dispensing with the other random viewpoints, this is a powerful work, and Jim is a heartbreakingly astute study of torment.

Fishing trip

The opening sequence takes place in the early morning as Jim sets off on one of his habitual fishing trips. He is not all that interested in fish, though: “A letter from social security came in the post telling me to show up at their office, but I guessed I wouldn’t have to go back to work straight away. As long as I remembered to take my pills, one day slid nicely into another.”

By chance someone else happens to drive by: his friend Tommy. They have not seen each other for more than 30 years. Looking closely at this older version of a person he had once known so well, Jim ponders: "He was the same, and yet he looked like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State. Leather gloves. Blue eyes. Slightly out of focus." It is one of several references to US culture that Petterson makes. It is also an introduction to the way in which the perceptive, bewildered Jim, Petterson's most convincingly drawn character to date, views the world.

Tommy drives away and Jim gathers his home-made bits of fishing tackle. Then he weeps. On driving home he notices that the woman who had spent the night with him is still asleep in his bed. Jim settles down on the sofa and, convinced that he won’t sleep, reflects: “The skin on my face chafed stiff and dry like a mask against my cheekbones.” When he does wake, the woman has left and he can’t even remember her name.

Instead of continuing with Jim’s story, the narrative shifts to the first of many flashbacks. Tommy describes hearing his mother shout his name. It was a long time ago, before she left. She was calling to him; their dog was in a pond drowning. Tommy was only 10 years old, but his mother couldn’t swim. The boy was struck by how cold the water was: “My teeth were chattering beyond control, and they grew bigger in my mouth.”

It is the kind of observation that Jim would make, and if there is one thing odd about this novel it is the fact that all the characters sound the same. Time and again one is struck by the thought that Petterson could as easily, and even more effectively, have written it entirely in either Jim's voice or from his viewpoint. Such misgivings aside, the story, if not quite cohesively executed, does engage the emotions. It would be difficult to read I Refuse without feeling profoundly moved.

Tommy moves on from the hell of living with his father, possibly because it is he who not only banishes the father but, in doing do, also frees his sisters. He has the confidence to strike out for himself. A further symbolic gesture is his decision, some four years after his final battle with his father, to set fire to the long-vacant family home.

Petterson is very good on the little asides, the small additional details, such as the local sergeant who, having collected Tommy to bring him for his interview with the police chief, is clearly unwell. After the matter of arson has been discussed, the boy looks at the sergeant and asks how he is feeling. He offers to drive, and the policeman agrees. On arriving back at Jonsen’s home, where Tommy, then 17, is still living, the ailing sergeant exclaims: “Am I stupid or what . . . I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone.” In one sentence Petterson deftly consolidates a sense of the local.

There are many moments and telling exchanges that illustrate the ordinary. Tommy is both successful and self-protective. In common with Jim, he does not have a wife or children; Tommy also drifts along, albeit at a somewhat more privileged level. He is effective and practical. In most novels he would emerge as a central character. Petterson never quite reveals enough about him, because this story so clearly belongs to Jim. He is the one that matters, and slowly but surely the full extent of his tragedy seeps out and we find out what really happened after his friendship with Tommy evaporated, apparently on the toss of a coin.

Jim is an engaging narrator, with a distinctly wry sense of irony. His description of his visit to social welfare is a standalone set piece, featuring wary civil servants who couldn't care less about the claimants. About the time Jim realises his career at Oslo libraries "was over almost before it had begun" he locks himself in his flat and tells his doctor he has suffered another collapse. The doctor is perturbed and summons him back to the surgery. But Jim stays in bed for a few days before finally getting up to answer a persistent door bell. It is a man selling the works of Georges Simenon. Jim buys a set of 15 volumes, "Each with two novels inside and gold letters on the spine". Within a week he has read them all: "Then I went to see the doctor."

Just as Tim Winton's Eyrie looked at a life about to implode, Petterson, in Jim, has evoked an Everyman in chaos. Although parts of the narrative distract from the main story, this is an extraordinarily humane work. Petterson says far more in less than 300 pages about the struggle to make sense of existence than his overhyped countryman Karl Ove Knausgaard does in 3,600 of forensic recall.

I Refuse will lodge in the heart and remain there.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times