Karl Ove Knausgaard returns with the third entry in his autobiographical series of novels under the My Struggle moniker, this time focusing on his awkward childhood days spent living on an island in southern Norway. As a young Knausgaard adjusts to life in his new surroundings he’ll have to contend with a highly volatile father, a passive mother, and a community of children who just can’t seem to appreciate his obvious brilliance.
Poor lil’ Karl Ove. What a mess the kid was. His ass was too big, his teeth were jagged, and he had warts all over his hands. Unlike most of the other boys his age he talked with a pronounced lisp, loved to obsess about clothes, enjoyed picking wild flowers in the forest, and would have himself a good cry whenever anyone else would become even slightly agitated by his behavior. Oh, and he also harbored a serious fetish about pooping in the woods:
But we used to have a shit in the forest when we were on our walks. We would climb up trees and shit from there, squat on top of a cliff and shit over the edge, or on the bank of a stream and shit in it. All to see what happened and how it felt. What color the turds were, whether they were black, green, brown, or light brown, how long and fat they were, and what happened when they lay there glistening on the forest floor, between heather and moss, whether there would be flies swarming around them or beetles climbing over them. Also the smell of shit was sharper, stronger, and more distinct in the forest. Now and then we revisited places where we’d had a shit, to see what had happened to it. Sometimes they had vanished, sometimes there were only dry remains, and at other times they lay flat as though they had melted in a pool.
In some respects it’s easy to see why the boy’s father would so randomly and mercilessly attack him. Not because Karl Ove was an easy target, but perhaps in a desperate, ill-advised attempt to toughen him up, prepare him for the real world, and turn him into something that he was not: an ordinary boy. On the other hand though, neither parent really did all that much to point him in the right direction. They would both do things like buy him a lady’s swim cap or a Girl Scouts pocket knife and force him to use these items in public even when he tried to protest that they were too feminine and that he’d be teased by his peers for it.
With or without parental interference, interacting with others wasn’t lil’ Karl Ove’s strong point. The novel highlights one fumbling attempt after another to be accepted by his classmates. The opposite sex would clearly excite him, and as a strange as he was, getting a girlfriend would never seem to be the issue; keeping any one of them interested for more than a week would prove problematic however because he could never quite figure out how to treat them properly.
Boyhood Island really is the perfect subtitle for this entry in the series (even if Archipelago went and shortened it to simply “Boyhood” for some reason), because not only is Knausgaard physically living on an island, but he’s also living in a state of isolation. The kids around him grow to loathe his behavior and eventually label him a “Jessie.” Even if he was able to make some good friends they wouldn’t be able to come over and hang out because his parents had a strict rule that no one is allowed to ever visit the family home. He can’t turn to either his mother or his father for nurturing or support when it comes to growing up because neither seem to possess the patience for the person he’s become. He’s alone, on an island, struggling to make the transition from boy to man, and socially he seems to be failing miserably. Combine this with the fact that he has to contend with the brunt of the sudden, random outbursts of hostility that emanate from his father and what you’ve got is a near-perfect recipe for loneliness. Kids are resilient though, and no matter how much lil’ Karl Ove gets teased and/or abused by those around him, he quickly wipes away the tears and bounces back ready to absorb even more punishment.
Boyhood Island is an interesting entry in the My Struggle series. It’s not quite as brilliant as the first book was, but thankfully it’s not as narcissistic as the second volume either. Lil’ Karl Ove is quite irritating at times, but Knausgaard’s remarkable ability to grow himself back down, to recreate the awkwardness, powerlessness, and uncertainty of youth is quite breathtaking. What makes it work, what makes us all keep reading and wanting more of course, is his uncensored, self-deprecating style. Far from the vision of perfection he deems himself to be, it’s lil’ Karl Ove’s inability to grasp his shortcomings that makes him such a brilliantly realized snapshot of youth. Everybody knows that growing up sucks, but reading about it, at least in this case, does not.
My Struggle: Book 3 / Boyhood Island
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett