Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2017

Echoland, by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett #BookReview

Echoland is Per Petterson’s first novel, published in 1989 in Norway, but not translated into English until now.  It is the story of a twelve year old boy confronting adolescence and all the emotional and hormonal turbulence that goes with it, exacerbated by unexplained tensions within his family.

Petterson doesn’t write long books, but this one is shorter still at only 132 pages. Yet it has a powerful impact on the reader, partly because of what we recognise as Petterson’s trademark spare prose on display here in his first novel, but also because of the preoccupation with death and alienation.  Arvid is on a beachside holiday with his family in Denmark, staying with his grandparents, but it is no idyll.  There is friction of long standing between his mother and grandmother, and his father is drawn into it because he failed to offer the support that was needed when it was needed – and it’s too late now.

This author doesn’t make things explicit in his almost plotless books, but careful reading between the lines can bring some strands together.  Arvid’s mother ‘went away’ without explanation as a young woman; and Arvid is noticeably not Norwegian in appearance.  His Italian colouring provokes comment almost straight away when he meets and makes friends with Mogens, who turns out to be as much interested in Arvid’s older sister Gry as he is in Arvid.  Perhaps the Italian genes are from the Neapolitan ancestor who in 1874 migrated to Norway, and perhaps they are not.  What matters to Arvid is that they make him different, and different to his sister too, who has blonde hair and brown skin.  Sometimes he embraces this difference, declaring to the stranger on the ferry that he’s Italian, and he sings the Italian song Come Prima about first love that is his mother’s constant refrain, but he doesn’t understand the words because he doesn’t know Italian.  Sometimes he yearns to belong.

There are many things that Arvid doesn’t understand, but the one that vexes him most is the hostility between his mother and hers.  He doesn’t understand why his mother cries every time they visit his maternal grandparents, not making the link between his grandmother’s judgemental religiosity and the rural conservatism that made the tango a forbidden dance during the war.

The silences in this family make Arvid’s preoccupation with death more difficult for him.   His great-grandfather committed suicide, this tragedy commemorated by a plaque outside the cemetery, reading By his own hand.  Arvid lost his faith when he prayed for a small sibling to survive and God failed him, and no one ever talks about this.  He’s curious about his uncle Jesper’s death at sea too, but grief is suppressed in this household and no one ever explains to him what happened.

Arvid undertakes the kind of activities you’d expect him to: he roams increasingly further away from his grandparents’ home; he goes fishing with his mate Mogens, he spies on lovers that he sees among the dunes and he is moody and preoccupied.  But as the book progresses the reader sees him yearning for the adventure he’s read about in his favourite book, and taking risks of one sort or another while claiming that he can take care of himself.  The narrative tension rises as these risky behaviours increase in intensity:  he teases a raging bull, he jumps into the sea to overpower a huge cod he’s caught, and he rides no-hands on his bike on roads he doesn’t know.  He doesn’t think he’s immortal, but he thinks he’s powerful like the eagle after which he is named, and he thinks he ‘has time’ because he thinks that he won’t die until he’s the same age as Jesper.

Echoland is a coming-of-age novel with a shocking denouement.

PS The translation by Don Bartlett is flawless.

Author: Per Petterson
Title: Echoland
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 2016, first published as Ekkoland by Forlaget Oktober, 1989
ISBN: 9781846554490
Source: Bayside library


  1. Saw this earlier this year in Canada, and almost bought it–but then put it back. Now I regret it!

    • Don’t you hate that?! It happens to me all the time. Will your library have it?

      • Not out in the US yet.

  2. This sounds absolutely fantastic – my kind of style. Beautiful review, as always. Add it to the list!

    • Hello Kirsten, lovely to hear from you!
      Yes, with your interest in risky behaviours among adolescents, I think this book speaks to all that too. Not as modern though, that’s what I liked about just_a_girl, it was so true of our times.
      Are you working on a new book for me to read?

  3. I just scanned your review as I have this in one of my TBR piles. I am never disappointed by Petterson—one of my favourite writers.

    • I’m interested to hear that, Joe! I’d have thought Petterson a bit conventional for you.

      • Dorian! Did we not discuss My Ántonia over brunch this summer? I may read more experimental and postmodern literature than I used to—and often prefer to chose such work for critical reviews—that could never be my sole literary diet. Petterson’s work is spare, moody, tight—love that. And the northern settings feel familiar.

        • *chuckle*, Joe, I think you’re being prompted to write more reviews!

          • I like your thinking, Lisa! But not all of us can be as prolific and dedicated as you!

          • I did review Petterson’s I Refuse early in my blogging days—quite a personal review in fact. However I read his very first book, a collection called “Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes” at the same time that I was trying to choke my way through Knausgaard’s “Boyhood Island” for the IFFP shadow jury. Two Norwegian writers covering essentially the same ground — wilderness settings, alcoholic fathers — but Petterson distilled his story into less than 100 breath-taking small scale pages. I gave up on Knausgaard about 100 pages in after he spent a few pages describing listening to his mother pee in the adjoining room at night! I decided not to write about either book due to lack of time and inability to say anything civil about Karl Ove in the comparison!

            • LOL Unlike me, quite happy to be uncivil about Knaussgard. So awful about his poor children…

        • Ha! I thought you were all Leiris all the time… Yes, good point about My Antonia, though I submit it is a lot less conventional in structure than Petterson’s books. Anyway, I am a fan too. Out Stealing Horses in particular has stayed with.

          • Well, yes, but Leiris is essay/autobiography. In my Lithub essay about reading and transition, I write about five books, and Out Stealing Horses is the fifth—one that marks a form of emotional closure on my journey.

            • That’s right! I remember now.

  4. He’s one of my favourite writers but haven’t read this one yet. I have tickets to see him in London later in the year and am looking forward to it greatly. He’s had a lot of tragedy in his life, I think, which explains why he seems to write the same book over and over: he’s trying to work something out in his fiction and I’m not sure he’s got there yet. Lovely review, Lisa, I’m now tempted to read this one earlier rather than later.

    • He lost all his family, didn’t he?

      • Yes, parents, brother and a niece I think in the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster.

        • Ghastly… the poor man…

  5. Looking forward to this one very much. I’m a fan of economical prose which communicates so much more than the overwritten kind. Writing from the point of view of a child is a tough trick to carry off but it allows a penetrating insight into family life if it works. Thanks for whetting my appetite even more!

    • Yes, interesting you should say this… at the translation symposium I went to I commented that maybe one reason Australian authors find it hard to break into the translation market overseas is that our Lit-Fic novels tend to be long-ish, round about 300 pages, just under or a bit over. Whereas the books I’ve seen in the French Poche (Pocket) editions are more like the length of the old Penguins, when authors like Thea Astley and Jessica Anderson produced taut novels of under 250 pages. Patrick Modiano writes books of around 200 pages. My comment went down like a lead balloon, but I’d love to know what people working in the field think and if it is an issue. (I mean people at the London and Frankfurt Book fairs who try to sell Aussie book rights to overseas publishers for translation.)
      (A great book, of course, is going to be translated no matter what length it is…)

      • We have the same problem here in the UK, and many books emanating from the US seem to be overblown. I’ve often wondered if it has to do with a change in the editorial process. Agents play a much bigger part these days.

        • *chuckle* Maybe we are all just a bit more long-winded these days…

  6. The review was interesting, but the comments even more so!

  7. I’ve yet to read this author although I’ve been meaning to. This one, set in Denmark, and on a holiday no less, is tempting.

    • Well, I liked it, but as you might expect from a first novel, it’s not his best work, I think that is Out Stealing Horses…

  8. Still only read one of his books, simply because he doesn’t overlap with any of my areas of interest – maybe next year…

    • Ah well, we can’t read everything!

  9. Thanks, Lisa. This one went on my shopping list.

  10. Thanks, Robyn, nice to hear from you… I enjoyed hearing your interview on RN with Richard Fidler:)

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