I came to Per Petterson’s Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes not long after having read Nguyen Nhat Anh’s Ticket to Childhood (which I recommend strongly). Both approach childhood and, due to the temporal proximity with which I read them, have become intertwined in my head so please forgive the comparisons. Where Ticket to Childhood takes on a personal and humorous approach, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes chooses distance and gravity. They reflect two sides of the same coin, fittingly as I’d probably need to flip said coin to pick a preference.
Per Petterson is well-known to us as the best-selling author of Out Stealing Horses, which also won the Internation IMPAC Dublin Literary award, has been translated into forty-nine languages, and was named Best Book of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review. Unlike my friend, Nguyen Nhat Anh, Mr. Petterson is no secret. Graywolf Press (I love you, Graywolf, never change) brings us Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes as a literary doubleheader with his novel, I Refuse, which will be published the same day. Meaning there is no room to complain when hungering for more new titles of Petterson’s work (huzzah). The question might linger as to why one would read Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a story collection, over I Refuse or the highly acclaimed Out Stealing Horses. First, is my word not enough? Second, and the reason that holds more weight, is that Ashes in My Mouth is Petterson’s debut. The third, the reason that holds the most weight, is that this is a startlingly beautiful collection of ten stories that portray childhood with the complexity and sensitivity that it deserves.
On the outskirts of Oslo in the early sixties, we read through the life of Arvid Jansen, a bed wetter, and son of a shoe factory worker and Danish cleaner. In the shadow of THE WAR and the looming threat of nuclear conflict, we follow Arvid through the struggles of daily life. Arvid is a meek boy, filled with almost heartbreaking adoration for his father. His vulnerability is the lens through which we see Arvid’s world. It is a piercing perspective we are given. For though Arvid can be seen as weak or fragile, Petterson conveys to us that he is not yet broken like so many of the characters that inhabit his life. His mother smokes and takes walks after particularly tense fights with his father. We see his sister’s worldly knowledge as the elder of the pair, the older brother of Arvid’s friend that wants him to retrieve adult magazines from a collapsing barn. There is his Uncle Rolf, the town drunk Fatso, and his deceased grandfather. Arvid is center of a changing world. Petterson’s stories build upon one another, mounting Arvid’s experiences as the softness we first encounter in Arvid hardens.
Petterson’s language shines throughout this book. Similar to Ticket to Childhood, there is an authenticity and innocence that is portrayed, but where Nguyen Nhat Anh philosophizes, Per Petterson is inclined to let us watch. His stories have a gentle, captivating power, like the familiar scent of a parents’ room. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes softly carries us through young Arvid’s life and understanding, patching together the scenes that make up a childhood. While Petterson doesn’t have the same wit or humor that filled Ticket to Childhood, there is certainly no lack of haunting beauty or power.