In an interview in The Economist (Jan 2012), Per Petterson notes that, "
[W]e cannot know each other. You could call that loneliness, or you could call it character; making us who we are, being different from one another, which is a good thing." In his novel It's Fine by Me, Petterson uses this shared-yet-unique loneliness as the foundation for characters who are so vulnerable, so real, so beautifully complex, you ache for them.
This slim novel, originally published as Det er greit for meg (1992) and translated into English by Don Bartlett, revolves around the teenage years of Audun Sletten, a young man who to put it mildly has had a rough go in life. His largely absent father (though not absent enough) is an abusive alcoholic whose presence looms in the shadows of Oslo. His younger brother is dead died in a reckless car accident, his sister chooses to move in with a suspicious James Dean wannabe, and his mother too exhausted by her own grief to overcome Audun's resistance to her parenting is content to turn up her opera music and leave him be.
Set throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the novel opens as Audun, a snarky and insecure 13-year-old, faces his first day at the Veitvet School an event for which he refuses to remove his sunglasses, not even in class. He and his mother have recently moved to Oslo to escape his father the memory of whom keeps Audun looking over his shoulder. From there, the story jumps around in time, visiting different distinct memories in Audun's young life. Some memories are traumatic, some tender and poignant, others simply are. As the novel progresses, readers start to piece together Audun's life story - his motivations, the reasons for his insecurities and odd behaviors, how his loneliness varies from the loneliness of those around him. He's a relatable character - he's a teenager after all, caught somewhere between wanting to be cared for and being a powerful adult. For example, upon meeting his sister Kari's boyfriend, Audun thinks: I am sure he beats her, but I have never seen anything, and Kari does not say a word. If ever I catch him I'll beat him up. That won't cost me much I have been training for years. With my newspaper money I bought a bench and weights. Luckily though, he has Arvid (see 'Beyond the Book'), a true friend who despite their inevitable differences makes the loneliness more bearable.
The real gift of this novel is Petterson's careful, simple prose. Each word feels mindfully selected and therefore carries a special weight. Rather than giving explanations for his characters' feelings or spelling out why they act in certain ways, Petterson keeps these details quiet, and simply shows their all-too-human reactions to life. By doing so, he places more responsibility on the reader to work through, understand, and experience the characters' emotions, which makes for a truly wonderful, if at times heartbreaking, visceral read.
Petterson's descriptions of Norway are carefully wrought both beautiful and quiet and readers feel how the setting shapes Audun's personality. In The Economist Petterson explains, "I take great joy in writing about [nature]. It is something I have taken with me from my childhood; the body exposed to the threat of the physical world and at the same time being at home in it." Admittedly, at times the unfamiliar names of places in Norway were a little distracting, but overall they didn't detract from the story.
It's Fine by Me is a fine novel, not overly weighed down by the reality of its characters, written with care, detail, and a respect for the delicacy of trust and what it means to be vulnerable. Petterson is able to communicate the complexity of deep emotions in few words a gift that will leave readers in a quiet, contemplative space after reading his work and will probably inspire a second reading. Highly recommended.
This review was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the September 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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