I Curse The River of Time is a nostalgic, sensitive, self-critical narrative related by a working class man who is about to go through a divorce and has learned that his mother is dying of cancer. It is replete with Scandinavian austerity, the sentences and images all wind-burnished. The divorce is the lesser part of the story. The narrator's persistent quest for his mother's active love, even when she is struggling to wring the remaining drops of meaning out of her own life, is the major part.
This mother-son relationship is notable for its dryness, its distance, its Oedipal hollowness. The mother seems to cherish her other sons more, particularly a son who died young, but she also seems to regard the narrator as a needy pest of a tyke, who remains true to form on into middle age.
Petterson's writing in this novel seems marked by a Hemingway influence. The scenes are spare, built on dialogue that is as much unspoken as unspoken, and constructed within settings that hurtle along naming this and that and this and that and this again...as Hemingway wrote, as if a character's perceptions of the quality of sunlight, the aspect of an old building, the character of a face, the taste of water or wine, amounted to a kind of desperate poetry...a poetry of neediness...a poetry beyond faith and transcendence.
That said, this is a vivid, well-paced, interesting book, especially in that its characters are stubborn, don't yield easily to one another, and inhabit that windy, desolate world Americans were introduced to by Bergman or Munch (visually) or perhaps Hamsun in fiction or Ibsen and Strindberg (dramatically).
Scandinavian writing, if one may generalize, appeals to one's sense of starkness and existential finitude.
There is little focus on religion in this novel. The northern depictions of faith under seige offered by Kierkergaard (or Bergman, for that matter) are honored in the breech. Politically, I Curse the River of Time is set against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But that theme seems artificially inserted here. The narrator, a run-of-the-mill Communist, engages in no particular struggle with metaphysical forces that overwhelm or bewitch him. Sadly, he seems to lack the knowledge to reflect on existence much beyond his immediate perceptions and immature needs. HIs mother appears to be more thoughtful and better read, but she rebuffs and chastens him more than challenges him. When the Berlin Wall falls, he seems to think something personal in him has tumbled with it, but it's not clear what.
Again, the experience of reading I Curse The River of Time is enjoyable. The thwarted melancholy and frustrated self-indulgence are honest and somewhat "different." This is not a protagonist who expects a great deal of pity or sympathy. He's not that sympathetic to himself.
Causes Robert Earle Supports
World Wildlife Fund