In the first of his six autobiographical novels, Knausgaard writes about his childhood and teenage years, his infatuation with rock music, his relationship with his loving yet almost invisible mother and his distant and unpredictable father, and his bewilderment and grief on his father’s death.
What gives the novel its tension is that the worst part of its disaster always seems about to happen. This overwhelming sense of dread transforms a typical coming-of-age story into a monster movie—or, to put it another way, it shows us that childhood is itself a monster movie ... Form and destruction: the two words run like rails through My Struggle, creating an energy that we see not only in the writing itself, but in the book’s central relationship between the jittery, unformed narrator and his rule-obsessed father ... A book so shot through with emptiness and death that it leaves its readers feeling full and alive. A deeply morbid book, My Struggle is nonetheless as full of life as a boat is of wind or a house is of light.
As with his great mentor, adherence to a strict chronology matters less to Knausgaard than crafting a mosaic of glittering scenes, framed by recurrent images and memories. Don Bartlett deserves the highest praise for a translation that, with pace, rhythm and agility, registers every swing and swoop of mood and tone. This prismatic, recursive approach to childhood and adolescence means that Knausgaard offers much less in-your-face intimacy than the hype suggests ... Sometimes overblown, quite often as sublime as its author hoped, this first installment of an epic quest should restore jaded readers to life.
A Death in the Family begins with a grand meditation on post-mortem microbes worthy of Jim Crace's Being Dead, and ends impressively too, with a profoundly resonant last line. In between, in a Proustian spirit of digression, there are philosophical pensées of varying interest, as well as vivid evocations of adolescent hypersensitivity and confusion. The bulk of the text, however, consists of mundane family life described in microscopic detail. All the dull stuff that most novelists would omit, Knausgaard leaves in ... This merciless specificity, which some readers may find maddening, serves two purposes. It lends an air of unedited truth to the project, and it adds power to the final third of the book, where Karl Ove and his brother Yngve are saddled with the grim job of cleaning the house in which their father drank himself to death ... On the evidence of A Death in the Family, I suspect that Knausgaard's lifelong yearning to achieve literary immortality may prove biodegradable too.