Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 1, 2013

A Death in the Family (2009), by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett

Shadow IFFP badge 2013A Death in the FamilyI’ve been putting off writing this review.  It was with a sigh of relief that I got to the end of the book and took it back to the library, and I have found it hard to muster the enthusiasm to revisit the novel in a review.

But, here it is: I found A Death in the Family immensely tiresome and dull.

As it says on my Review and Comments Policy page, I’m not keen on sad memoirs, and even though A Death in the Family is supposed to be a novel, it reads just like a dreary memoir in Part 1, and then in Part II it reads like a nauseating memoir…

As I have better things to do, this review will be brief.

It’s a first person narration of the tortured thoughts of a character called Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose life is dominated by his emotionally distant father.  I assume the criticism of his father (which is laid on with a trowel) is meant to be ironic, because the narrator is not exactly World’s Best Father himself, admitting that he would rather write his books than be bothered with his children, and admitting to shaking them harshly when they interfere with his peace and quiet.  (Does he know how many babies die from Shaken Baby Syndrome?  I have taught a little one with permanent brain damage cause by an angry male, it is a wicked thing to do and there is no excuse for it).

Despite what is portrayed as a childhood dominated by fear of his father, Karl Ove seems well able to rebel, and this long book devotes pages and pages to his rebellious phase which consists of mucking about at school, teenage drinking, raucous parties, playing the guitar very badly, and the usual inconclusive efforts to seduce girls.  This part is completely banal.

Part II is when his father dies from alcohol abuse, and Karl Ove and his brother go to sort out the disgusting mess that his grandmother’s house has become.  No detail is spared.

Well, the blurb claims it’s Proustian.  This is not the first time I’ve come across the term Proustian used to describe a life described in minute detail, but as you know if you’ve read Proust, Remembrance of Things Past a.k.a. In Search of lost Time is not self-indulgent or boring.  It is enchanting. It weaves a magic spell as you read…

But Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes thought A Death in the Family was very good indeed, and obviously the judges were impressed, and it’s running up bestseller lists everywhere, so don’t take any notice of me!

I read this book as a member of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Jury.  To view other reviews of this and other nominations please click here or on the IFFP graphic.

PS 5/1/14 Tony at Tony’s Book World felt as I did.  See his review here.

Author:Karl Ove Knausgaard
Title: A Death in the Family a.k.a. My Struggle Pt 1
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House, 2012, first published 2009
ISBN: 9781846554674, hbk., 400 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. […] ANZ LitLovers […]


  2. I remember this book was listed by a number of bloggers and commenters on blogs as one of their favourite books of 2012. I bought it in a clearance sale recently and had previously borrowed it from the library. I have picked it up to read twice so far but haven’t made it past the first couple of pages. Your review does make me wonder whether I should follow my original instincts and donate it to my local opp shop!


  3. Oh I like trevor loved this lisa but do wonder if it is that I connect with him as a man more than you and certain events in my life i was remind of in this book ,all the best stu


    • *chuckle* This is why it is so good for your Shadow Jury to have a pesky woman on it too!
      Seriously, it wasn’t the troubled father-son relationship that was the problem, that’s a familiar theme in life and literature and it’s occasionally interesting to read about. No, it was the self-indulgent long-winded style of it, and perhaps the translation exacerbated that? To me, it seemed like adolescent whining. And I’m not alone, even Trevor who likes it calls it banal here and there.
      Anyway, we shall have an interesting discussion about it when the Shadow Jury comes to winnowing out the winner, eh?


  4. […] is perhaps why I was so peeved by the verbosity and self-indulgence of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family.  It seemed so Californian!) (Sorry, California, but you know what I […]


  5. Scathing! I won’t be picking this one up – thanks for the warning!


    • Don’t be too hasty LOL, this one could well add to my track record of being underwhelmed by popular prize winners!


      • I think being underwhelmed by prize winners is inevitable sometimes – they can only ever be subjective, as can we.


  6. Lisa, you and I are not alone in our extreme distaste for ‘My Struggle’.
    Here is a review in the Guardian by Michel Faber (‘The Crimson Petal and the White’) who had pretty much the same reaction to this book as we did.


    • A biodegradable book, I love it!


  7. […] I’ve said this before, and the whole world disagrees with me so you should probably ignore me, but IMO the […]


  8. […] thoughts too. For example, you can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) review here and Jacqui’s review here. You can also find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s […]


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