Norwegian writer Per Petterson's debut novel, which appeared in Norway in 1989, finally arrives in the United States. In it, a 12-year-old boy named Arvid Jansen navigates a fraught family life in the aftermath of his infant brother's death alongside other other trials and tribulations that mark his coming-of-age.
... a compelling mix of fable with the day-to-day account of a working-class boy, just about to turn 12, as he visits his maternal grandparents in Jutland ... the real echoland here is Arvid’s imagination; his intuitions and suspicions and, in the end, his inability to come to terms with a grief that is left hanging, unspoken and unmediated, while the family struggle, individually rather than collectively, to come to terms with their history ... even the most seemingly incidental characters are vividly painted ... it is hard to think of a novel that so precisely and vividly conveys the pain and disorientation of puberty. As the book progresses, one’s apprehension becomes more and more acute, until it is close to unbearable. Even then, it is no preparation for what comes on the very last page, a dramatic turn of events that, even while it seems to have been inevitable all along, still hits the reader with all the force of a hammer blow.
There is little unconventional about this boy’s own story—though sticking to the Bildungsroman template does lend a tragic inevitability ... there may be no surprise but that doesn’t mean it’s not shocking ... The book offers a crudely symbolic bestiary of writhing cod, heaving live bait, gassed moles and, most grotesquely, severed chicken heads that continue posthumously to peck. More subtle is the economy with which the author conjures the toxic family atmosphere, a beautiful example of writing between the lines that conveys Arvid’s limited perspective. There is pleasure, too, in watching Petterson shift through the gears from pleasure to unease in one of those gloriously sinuous sentences that have become something of a trademark ... it is a far more interesting book when read beside the Norwegian’s other novels ... Few novelists rework details so obsessively from book to book ... To this land of echoes, Echoland is a fascinating addition.
His writing leans towards the Carveresque, both in terms of its minimalist style and its themes: family discord, alcoholism and the perpetual struggle against a sense of personal failure. In Echoland these demons are shunted up the generations, as a family holiday with Arvid’s grandparents in Denmark swiftly revives old tensions ... Fans of Petterson’s later books might wince at this rather guileless tone, but the narrative builds to a domestic crisis that, though low-key, feels authentic. This might involve nothing more dramatic than the discord between father and son, mother and daughter, but that discord chimes perfectly with the narrative of Arvid’s family life in the other books to come.