Most of my professional perks come from my job. "There are cookies in the kitchen!" reads a common 2 pm email. But there are a few perks to being a freelance writer, too. Case in point: having reviewed a couple Graywolf books over the years, I now frequently get advance copies of new titles I wouldn't otherwise have known about, including, because of my apparently irrepressible love of all things Scandinavian, every novel having anything to do with Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, or Finland.
The latest, Child Wonder by the Norwegian novelist Roy Jacobsen, came to me this summer, and in my post-Eurasian hangover, when I was still very much lusting for Cold War stories from northern climes, and feeling nostalgic for Siberia's vast miles of birch woods every time I looked at my Marimekko shower curtain, I picked it up and hoped to be transported.
The book, which was published last month, did not disappoint. Child Wonder is a great read, the story of 9-year-old Finn and his single mother, scrimping by stoically in the working-class suburbs of Oslo, circa 1961, the era of the Berlin Wall and Finn's hero Yuri Gagarin. As the novel opens, Finn and his mom are redecorating their apartment. They are self-sufficient, and they are finally indulging in a little affordable luxury: Swedish wallpaper. But the IKEA dream requires a little extra cash, and soon they are taking on a lodger, a well-dressed young man who comes with a television as well as a much-valued education. Another interloper -- a half-sister Finn didn't even know he had -- arrives soon after, and before long, the "delicate balance" of Finn's family of two has been transformed forever.
Jacobsen manages the double-voice of an adult looking back on his youth brilliantly, narrating entirely from the young Finn's incomplete perspective, but with strong, ironic dashes of the adult knowledge that's still to come. It's pretty hard to do both at once, but somehow, through long, breathless, multi-clausal sentences that speak both to childish exuberance and grown-up complexity, Jacobsen and his English translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw pull it off.
The book is completely transporting. I was in 1960s Norway -- a time of rapid social change -- the entire time, but I think my favorite aspect was less specific to Scandinavia or the 1960s, and more general to single mothers and only sons. As much as he is eager for certain adventures, Finn constantly mourns the changes he witnesses in his life, and Jacobsen roots this ambivalence beautifully in Finn's relationship with his mother, right down to the suddenness with which their arguments flare as a growing son learns more about his mom:
"I don't understand what you're on about," I said, ill-humoredly, and went into my room to lie down on the bed to read in peace, a Jukan comic. But, as is the case with protest reading in general, I couldn't concentrate, I just got angrier and angrier lying there with my clothes on, wondering how long a small boy has to lie like that waiting for his mother to come to her senses and assure him that nothing has changed, irrespective of whether Yuri Gagarin has blown us all sky high. As a rule it does not take very long, not in this house at least, but this time, oddly enough, I fell asleep in the middle of my rage."
I've been to IKEA numerous times, so I can fully picture that little wooden bed. The mother-son dynamic is somewhat less pre-fabricated -- but in these pages certainly no less real.
author of The Violet Hour, reader, prodigious eater of ice cream