Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson

This is Per Petterson’s first book, though only recently translated (by Don Bartlett) into English following the success of his novel Out Stealing Horses (translated into 40 languages) and the sequel to this novel , my personal favourite I Curse the River of Time.

Ashes in My MouthThis book provides a literary snapshot of a childhood growing up in the outskirts of Oslo, Norway in the early 1960’s. His father works in a shoe factory and his Danish mother used to work in a chocolate factory (in the good old days) and now works as a cleaner.

Arvid is six and a half years old and doesn’t always feel secure in the various environments he inhabits, whether at home or at school, or out fishing his Father and his Uncle, where there is no nagging voice to still their hand when they overindulge their mind altering beverage and revert to discussing childhood jealousies, a dialogue that descends into the physical.

His Grandfather has died and this alters things, even though they appear on the outside to be the same.

Arvid listens to the raised voices at night, hears the kitchen door slam and watches his mother tread the same long walk, out there to the dark and back, a walk with no destination, one she makes in the icy cold of night without wearing a coat.

One day he realises his mother is getting older, that time is moving on, and that it is also happening to him.

“He held his hands to his face as if to keep his skin in place and for many nights he lay clutching his body, feeling time sweeping through it like little explosions. The palms of his hands were quivering and he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older.”

I Curse

This is a quiet book whose observations cut deep, a sensitive child with a tough father who likes to remind those around him of his achievements, a boy who admires his father but lives in quasi-fear of not being able to live up to his expectations. It is an author getting into his stride, not as good as the work that will follow, though showing signs of the great work that was to come.

In the sequel, I Curse the River of Time, it is 1989 and Arvid Jensen is 37 years old,  in the throes of a divorce and has discovered that his mother is battling cancer.  It might sound grim, but it I remember it as an astonishing read and I shall make sure to reread it again in 2014, because I think this one could be one of my all time favourite reads.