Per Petterson’s last novel, Out Stealing Horses, was so good that essentially any follow-up was bound to feel slightly disappointing. Horses was one of the best novels of the last decade, following an old man who tries to patch over broken relationships in the present, and muses on a tragedy in his past. The book’s dual timelines clearly caught Petterson’s fancy, as his follow-up, I Curse The River Of Time, dances all over the chronological map.
For a while, this makes the book borderline-maddening. The entire first half feels like a jumbled mess than anything compelling. As the protagonist, Arvid, reflects on his life while on an impromptu vacation with his ailing mother, the book’s abrupt, barely signaled time shifts may leave some readers scrambling to keep up. Just when it seems like the book has settled into a rhythm, Petterson dodges off to something different.
But in the book’s second half, everything becomes much clearer. Arvid’s mind is tortured by memories of how his relationship with his mother crumbled, how his brother died, how he came to meet the wife who’s asked him for a divorce, and how he came to be a communist. The disconnection between these many thoughts reflects the disconnection between the many vignettes in the first half of the book. Arvid is circling a series of memories he simply doesn’t want to think about, as is his mother, and as the novel progresses, he gets closer and closer to these core memories.
Set in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Petterson keeps the collapse of communism as something for readers to hold on to, though he doesn’t drop the news on his characters until late in the novel. Unlike typical historical fiction, River uses history as a rough parallel its characters’ thoughts. Life sweeps one along as surely as history does, and trying to stand amid that river and stop it is as futile as trying to beat back the cancer that’s eating Arvid’s mother alive.
Petterson’s style is unique among current novelists. His sentences often go on for whole paragraphs, twisting and winding around themselves until readers may forget where they began. But Petterson’s gift is in finding ways to make these long, mystifying sentences land in places that inspire an almost unbearable emotional catharsis. River is an attempt to replicate that sentence structure throughout the entirety of a novel. By the time Arvid is considering the central moments of his life, the places where he could have changed things and made them better, the novel takes on an overwhelming poignancy.
Petterson’s major theme isn’t death, but dying—seeing all hope slowly slip out of people’s eyes as blood drains from their faces. Though it takes its time getting there, and may turn off readers along the way, I Curse The River Of Time may be his boldest explication of this theme yet. Life will end. There will be regret in those final few moments. Better to live it as well as possible now than increase that regret in those final hours.