Can a book be exhilarating and depressing at the same time? Well, this book about a bunch of misfits and losers in the oil-rich but isolated Norwegian town of Stavanger certainly manages just that. Readers and reviewers typically mention the hefty nature of this book (600 densely-written pages), but time flies by when you’re having fun and I read this all in just a couple of days. It’s the story of people making all the wrong choices, finding ways to justify those bad choices and generally making a complete mess of their lives. And yet, like an accident waiting to happen, you are compelled to read on, you cannot divert your eyes.
The chapters themselves are quite short, and each is written from a different point of view, alternating between ten main characters. The wealth of North Sea oil has not really filtered through to these characters in search of a life or redemption (but not of an author, they have certainly found that: Renberg gives them a great voice). There is Pål, good-natured but weak, a single Dad with an online gambling problem, who needs to raise money urgently to pay off his debts. His two daughters, Tiril and Malene, each cope with their mother’s abandonment in their own way: the first is an emo, the second is a gymnast whose dreams of a career may be shattered along with her ankle. Overweight horror-film addict Jan Inge leads a group of gangsters, which numbers his grumpy younger sister Chessi and her hyper, talkative boyfriend Rudi as well as uber-toughie Korean Tong amongst its members. Finally, there is the handsome juvenile delinquent in foster care, Daniel William, with two girls falling under his spell: good Christian girl Sandra and his deaf foster-sister Veronika. Over the course of three days, their lives will cross in a whirlwind of deliberate choices, accidents and coincidences, violence, black comedy and tragedy.
The author does a fantastic job of getting into the heads of each of his characters: each speaks, thinks, reacts in very different yet equally believable ways. The hormonal confusion of teenagers, the middle-aged yearnings for a better life, the casual juxtaposition of weakness and criminal tendencies are so plausible that it’s almost frightening. My favourite character (although I would hate to meet him in real life) is Rudi: you cannot help but smile at his tendency to over-share, his discomfort with silence, his highly verbal love for Chessi, his (much denied) love for Coldplay although ostensibly he and his mates only listen to heavy metal.
Social criticism, psychological insights, dark humour, a good dose of popular cultural references, crime drama, YA vibe and real sadness: this book contains all of these and more. Most remarkably, in the hands of this author these disparate elements don’t disintegrate into a hodge-podge of influences and trendy bits designed to please all audiences. Instead, it’s a virtuoso performance of an orchestra with very strong soloist performances. This must have been a difficult book to translate but Sean Kinsella does a marvellous job of conveying the technical brilliance of the different narrative voices. Apparently, it took the author six years to research this book and capture all the different points of view – and it shows. One of the most original and unclassifiable books I’ve read this year, in a beautiful hardback cover with red page borders.
Thank you to Arcadia Books for this review copy sent to me in exchange for my honest opinion.