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'I Curse The River Of Time' Flows Effortlessly

Per Petterson, an avid reader and bookseller before he became a writer, provides one of literature's greatest gifts in his novels -- an absorbing interiority that creates a welcome refuge from our cacophonous world. His books are suffused with a luxurious, downy silence, a quiet that allows us to slow down and sink into spare language that evokes complex emotions and primal sensations such as cold, wet, darkness and light with surprising force.

In Out Stealing Horses, Petterson's gorgeous, heartbreaking novel about a father-son relationship disrupted by war and romance, his main character, a 67-year-old widower who retires to a remote cabin with no forwarding address, recalls the last summer he spent in a similar riverside cabin near the Norway-Sweden border with his father in 1948, 52 years earlier. Deep in his musings and memories, he worries about becoming a "shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except in his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence."

Time does lose its sequence in the liquid thoughts of the narrator of Petterson's melancholic, misty, somewhat autobiographical new novel, I Curse the River of Time. Arvid Jansen reflects back on his life, and especially 1989, a difficult year for him when, at 37, he was set adrift by the impending loss of his three anchors -- his marriage, his mother, and Communism.

A prequel to In the Wake (2006), Petterson's book takes its title from a line in a poem by Mao, one of his narrator's heroes. Arvid, like Petterson, is the son of factory workers; his intellectual, multi-lingual, Danish-born mother worked at the Freia chocolate factory before leaving to clean hotels and public buildings. To his mother's disgust, in his fervor for communism, Arvid quits college after two years to join the proletariat, which he comes to realize "actually didn't exist anymore, but was an anachronism" -- "not quite the same as the [working class] my mother and father belonged to on a daily basis."

It slowly dawns on Arvid that his parents had no choice, whereas he's made a bad one. A lifelong reader like his mother, his memories of "a childhood whirled away by time" and a beautiful, fine courtship sadly "ground into dust" are interspersed with resonant reactions to various classics, including Les Miserables and A Moveable Feast.

I Curse the River of Time is about "a man out of time" who feels betrayed by what life has handed him when he wasn't watching, as if "Time had passed behind my back and I had not turned to look ... ." Both time and Petterson's narrative are more tidal than linear, flowing forward and backward in associative waves that require close attention and do not offer the dramatic drive of Out Stealing Horses. But the relationship that emerges here between a grown man and his fatally ill mother, whose support and attention he can't stop seeking even when he realizes he should be sustaining her, is complex and rich. Petterson has delivered a subtle meditation on the long, unstoppable river of time that pulls us all along relentlessly, whether we pay attention or not.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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