Thursday, 4 September 2014

'Boyhood Island' by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Review)

After a month of female writers, it was inevitable that I'd be getting through a few more testosterone-filled books in September, and who better for that than the king of confessional male writing?  Time for another slice of the life of a certain Mr. Karl Ove Knausgaard - and this one takes us right back to the start of it all...

Boyhood Island (translated by Don Bartlett) is the third in the series of Knausgaard's six My Struggle tomes, the latest to make it into English so far.  The book starts off with his parents' move to the small island of Tromøy, with little baby Karl Ove in tow.  What follows in the next 490 pages is the story of a boy growing up, with the book ending (for now) with his departure from the island at the age of twelve.

Much of the story follows young Knausi as he roams free through the landscape of both Tromøy and his youth.  He runs wild, spending sunny days in the fields and at sea, enjoying a free-range, sepia-tinted childhood, with football, sweets, music and girls as his main distractions.  It's a wonderful life, but there is one, inescapable, shadow hanging over his otherwise perfect days - his father....

I'd heard some less flattering things about Volume Three of the series, and many reviews and comments felt it was weak compared to the first two books in the series.  According to Wikipedia, Volumes Three to Five were written during the initial My Struggle uproar in Norway, and the writing of these parts was supposedly a little rushed.  Initially, I agreed with that view.  The book was great to read, and I zipped through the whole thing in no time, but the first half, in particular, felt at times a bit like Topsy and Tim go to Norway...

There's a lot more to Boyhood Island than that, though.  The simple tone is deliberate, with Knausgaard's style mirroring the simplicity of the child's thoughts, the adult writer keeping out of the child's head as much as possible.  In fact, as the story progresses, and Karl Ove grows up, the style does gradually become a little more complex, and it's a wonderful description of a boy emerging from childhood.

Knausgaard is only five years or so older than me, and there's a lot here that reminds me of my own childhood.  Quite apart from the physical escapades, his weaknesses bring back painful childhood memories.  He has irrational fears, terrified by the sounds the pipes make in his house; he's unable to swim a few yards over the deep water, even though his father is right there; he's deeply affected by childish teasing (there are lots of tears...).  And, of course, then there's the complexity of relations with the opposite sex...

As he grows up, Karl Ove becomes more self aware, getting over many of his earlier behaviours.  He also gradually realises his flaws, or at least the character traits which are seen as such by his classmates at school.  To an outsider, he's a geeky, bookish, slightly effeminate cry-baby.  Still, it takes him a while to realise why he's not really as popular as he'd thought (and hoped).

This was, of course, a very different time, and the young Knausi was able to roam free, pretty much at will.  He disappears for hours at a time, only coming back for food, a young boy enjoying climbing, skiing, swimming, boating:
"That was everything.  That was the world.
 But what a world!"
p.15 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
One of the biggest realisations I had while reading Boyhood Island is how different Karl Ove's childhood (which, as noted, was fairly similar to mine) is from that of the current generation who, for many reasons, are not given half as much freedom to explore the outside world.  My daughter is seven and I'm not sure if she's ever actually left the house alone...

What makes the book, though, is not the portrayal of an idyllic outdoor lifestyle, but the portrait of Knausgaard's father.  Calling him the shadow over Karl Ove's childhood is a fair understatement:
"The sole really unpredictable factor in this life, from autumn to winter, spring to summer, from one school year to the next, was dad.  I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to re-create the fear; the feelings I had for him I have never felt since, nor indeed anything close." (p.287)
The father is an irrational power which Karl Ove can do nothing about - as a young boy, he is absolutely powerless and at the mercy of his father's moods and whims.  And if those moods are usually bad ones...

Unfortunately for Karl Ove, the father is a tyrant who cannot be gainsaid.  He's a school-teacher of the old-school variety, a strict task-master who brooks no opposition, handing out unfair punishments, devoid of any sympathy.  The poor son is frequently punished for events beyond his control:
"What are you doing?" dad said.  "Are you completely stupid?  You don't stack wood like that!"
 He bent down and scattered the logs with his big hands.  I watched him with tears in my eyes.
 "You lay them lengthwise!" he said.  "Have you never seen a woodpile before?"
 He looked at me.
"Don't stand there weeping like a girl, Karl Ove.  Can't you do anything right?" (p.145)
It's an amazing, sobering picture of the helplessness of a child in the face of adult antagonism, one for all parents to think very closely about.  While it may seem like a harmless release of frustration, it's actually a highly damaging attack on a fragile soul.

The scary part of Boyhood Island is, as I keep saying, how similar it is to my own childhood.  Like Karl Ove, I spent a lot of my time running free, playing football and setting fires (I've matured - a bit- since then), and I, too, was an indiscriminate and voracious reader, a boy without many friends.  A Man in Love having also struck a chord, in these books Knausgaard seems to be showing me my past and present - and as he's five years older than me, I have a nasty feeling that I've also seen some of my future...

It might not be quite as good as the first two in the series, but Boyhood Island is a book that definitely grew on me.  While initially fun, but a little plain, the dark side of the story involving Karl Ove's father saves it from being a dull read.  Again, though, as was the case with A Man in Love, I'd have to wonder whether it's a boy thing: will women connect with his childhood as much?  Part of the beauty of the series so far is how much the books speak to me, but do they speak to everyone?  Will Karl Ove's clumsy, distant views of girls ring as true with female readers as they do with men?

Do let me know if you have any answers to these questions;)