Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard
At last it’s here – the third volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, perhaps the most significant literary project in contemporary letters since the late W. G. Sebald’s extraordinary oeuvre.
At first glance, it’s the conventionality of Boyhood Island that is striking. Yes, it’s a fictionalised autobiography, or an autobiographical fiction if you like, but here the digressions and essayism that marked previous volumes largely give way to a more straightforward, chronological narration; namely, an account of growing up on the little Norwegian island of Tromoya until the age of 13, when the family moved and Knausgaard had to leave all his friends and memories attached to that home-place behind.
But with what a vengeance they return as a 40-year-old author. Much of the book is the reproduction of Knausgaard’s raw experience in all his extraordinary recall: page after page of adventures in the natural environment, childhood hijinks and mischief-making, schoolyard loves and feuds, everyday home life and holidays. But the dark heart of the book lies in Knausgaard’s hatred of his father – the abuse, regularly meted out by him for the pettiest of alleged misdemeanours, I found thoroughly unsettling. That an old name for Tromoya translates as ‘Trauma’ from the Norwegian is chillingly ironic. Though, for all that, there is much that is highly comic here: the boys’ obsession with bodily functions, and later, their accessing of soft-porn; the infatuations with local girls (this book could easily have been entitled A Boy in Love, after its predecessor); and the inevitable heartbreaks. Knausgaard, on the cusp of young adulthood, is awkward, sensitive, dreamy – like many a teenager. In later life though, as a dad himself, he has ‘only one aim: that they (the children) shouldn’t be afraid of their father’.
Martin Shaw is Readings’ Books Division Manager.