Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of my favourite writers. It would probably be fair to say that he is one of (in my opinion) the greatest living writers. His six volume autobiographical epic, Min Kamp (My Struggle) is loved across the globe and this volume, Boyhood Island, the third, is the most recent to be translated into English. I very much enjoyed it despite some (quite significant) differences between this and A Death in the Family (1) and A Man In Love (2).
A Death In The Family is all about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s relationship with his father, a man who drank himself to death in a horribly destructive and messy way – this flits back and forth between the death and its aftermath and their life together when Karl Ove was a teenager, as well as many passages about his writing process; A Man In Love is about the breakdown of Kanusgaard’s first marriage and the love he found in his second and on becoming a father – this, too, flits about from the past to the present of writing, the past of one marriage to the past of the other and to the present of writing and so on; Boyhood Island, however, is about his childhood on the island of Tromøya in south Norway. It is linear – from the imagined arrival of his parents with him as an infant until their departure when he is thirteen, there are very few (though, obviously, some) references to life after this island.
And this is where it differs from the other two volumes. In many ways it is a simpler book – it is about childhood, about being a child, about the development of sexuality, about bullying, about exploring the world, about innocence and about beginning to understand the way the adult world works. That makes it sound far from a simple book, and it isn’t, it’s just (structurally) simpler than the other two.
The only time he breaks through to the present of his writing is about halfway through, where he really (only for a couple of pages) engages heavily with the written reality of the horror of life with his father, before he was an alcoholic. Knowing the course of his father’s life (as I presume most people reading this book will do) offers the reader a very sad lack of hope. His dad is not going to become nicer and calmer and better adjusted to the world – he is going to change for the worse only a few years after this book ends, and continue on a path that leads to some far darker places later on.
Knausgaard’s dad is horrible – manipulative, cruel and aggressive, and the reader is very much intimidated alongside the young Karl Ove who (despite the book’s past tense voice) one feels very much with here. We feel the joys of snow, of sports, of new music, of first loves, of exploring, of setting fire to things – there are some great bits about pornography, about rock music, about boats and about swimming lessons. There is a lot of excitement and Knausgaard, with Boyhood Island, very actively resurrects a childish innocence and wonder of the world.
The landscape descriptions are beautiful, the detail about EVERYTHING is charming and evocative and the prose is wonderful and compelling and-
This is about children and nature and music and (yes) sexuality, whereas the first two were (in part) about some of those, but far more about depression, desperation, death, physical decay, illness and substance abuse (not his), all of these being topics far more up my street.
But I loved this. I was engaged – I laughed many times, I cried at the incredibly sad scene I referred to earlier where he speaks about the present of writing (so heartbreaking I shan’t detail it here) and I was wowed, again, by his detail and his intelligence.
Particularly striking for me was a retelling of the Coda of A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven, his second novel and the only book of his outside of this project to have been translated into English. That strange, composite book (about the history of angels in art accompanied by long retellings of Old Testament stories) ends with an autobiographical section describing the reason for the book’s production. It is deeply moving and centres on an event in his childhood that is briefly referred to in Boyhood Island, stylised in the earlier book as the only pleasant time he ever had with his father, but passed off in this one as something of no significance. Which is true, if either, I wondered as the devout Knausgaard reader? Or, in the seven or so years in-between, did something change about his memory of the event?
But that’s not of interest to the general reader. Boyhood Island is charming, funny, moving and beautiful. What the fuck else do you want from a book? Read it.