You don’t read Per Petterson for his cheeriness but I Refuse seemed even more sombre than usual to me. In it two men, close friends when they were young, meet briefly one morning by coincidence. Expensively dressed, Tommy has just parked his car when he spots Jim, shabby in his old reefer coat. Each recognises the other despite the thirty years since their last meeting. Tommy’s remarks about his expensive Mercedes are made perhaps more from embarrassment than anything else but they bite. The rest of the novel is an overlapping mosaic of memories framed within the events of that September day.
Neither Tommy nor Jim are from conventionally happy families: Jim’s mother has told him nothing about the father he’s never seen and Tommy takes on the role of comforting his sisters, protecting them from his violent father after his mother disappears. Each is very different from the other but their friendship is the brightest thing in their lives. When eventually Tommy turns on his father after a particularly nasty beating, his family is broken up and scattered. Tommy moves in with Jonsen, the mill owner for whom he eventually works. The friends see less of each other, their bond strained even further by Jim’s move to another town and the months he spends in a psychiatric hospital. The bedrock of their lives has shifted. By the time of their chance meeting Tommy is a wealthy trader, moving money around on his computer screen while Jim has been sick for a year, his benefits about to be cut off. Now in their fifties neither is happy, both wrestling with what their lives have become and unable to find peace.
Through carefully layered first person and third person narratives from Jim and Tommy, occasionally interspersed with the memories of others, Petterson meticulously reconstructs their friendship and their lives over the past thirty years. Many passages are introspective – sometimes claustrophobic in the way that spending too much time in your own head becomes – punctuated by occasional dramatic events: the novel opens with a man lurching in front of Jim’s car, the appalling beating after which Tommy finally turns on his father, the sound of ice cracking on the frozen pond on which the two friends skate. Show not tell is the order of the day – small details click into place and by the end of the novel you feel that you know these men and the pain they have suffered. This is very fine writing – melancholic yet beautiful in its simplicity. Petterson once again proves himself thoroughly deserving of the many prizes heaped upon him. And Don Bartlett’s translation is a triumph.