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.

12 thoughts on “Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in My Shoes by Per Petterson

    • Probably the one that won all the awards (the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) and that was so universally loved, because if you enjoy Out Stealing Horses you will want to read more.


  1. I haven’t yet got around to I Curse the River of Time, Claire, but thoroughly enjoyed Ashes when I read it last year. I wondered if reading it brought back the 37-year-old Arvid for you and how like the boy the grown up Arvid was.


    • Not really at all. In this first book, it is like seeing a few snapshots and the snippets of story around them, disjointed episodes that create a picture of a childhood seen from the perspective of a young child. Thirty years is a long time and when someone near 40 looks back, we try to understand how their past influenced the present, if the author gives us any of that. I remember wondering about his mother and what had created the distance between them. The way he writes, he makes the reader want to know more and forces us to exercise patience in his slow reveal.

      I am definitely going to read it again, because now I have another perspective which will add something to the reading. I keep dipping in and out of it to try and remember. He’s reading Les Misérables in the book, which is another title I’m planning to read this year, might be a good simultaneous read, once I’m done with Eugene Onegin.


  2. Wonderful to read this review, Claire. I adored Out Stealing Horses, but for whatever reason I haven’t read any of Per Petterson’s other work since. Something to do with a stack of beautiful and promising books beside me that never seems to diminish no matter how much I read! But this post has brought me back to that marvellous, enigmatic work, and will act as a spur for further readings. Thank you.


    • I know about that stack! I’ve just written another post all about the stack I read in 2013, but Per Petterson is one one of those very rare authors for me, whom I consider rereading, because there is more to be had from his work than can be absorbed in one sitting. He has a certain sensitivity and presence that encourages slow reading, but the work is so good one can’t help but gobble it up. I am sure your stack could support another of his. 🙂


  3. I remember ‘Out Stealing Horses’ winning the Impac award and thinking then that this was a writer I should deliberately set out to read. I’m glad you’ve reminded me about him. I must see what the library has available.


    • Well logically you should start with this one since it comes first, but River of Time is the better book in my opinion, though be warned, they’re not plot driven, though the second book follows a little more of a story arc than the first. I was captivated by I Curse the River of Time.


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