It is 1961, the year of the Berlin Wall and Yuri Gagarin, and eight year old Finn is living alone with his mother in an apartment in a working class suburb of Oslo. His life is about to be changed by the advent of two new people: the lodger, Kristian, and his half-sister, Linda, whom he has never met before. But this is the beginning of the Sixties, and the first change, which triggers all the rest, is the promise and possibility of hire purchase, which will change relationships, both personal and political, in so many ways. The first thing that happens is that Finn’s mother buys a sofa on the never never. The need to keep up the instalments causes her to advertise for a lodger, and from this self-exposure, everything else in this pivotal year in Finn’s journey to maturity stems.
Jacobsen’s novel could be a nostalgia fest but avoids this fate through the precision and unadorned clarity of its prose, for which the translators should be acknowledged as well as the author. There is nothing cosy or sentimental in this picture of a childhood of barely respectable poverty, in which family tensions are quite literally papered over with fashionable wallpaper. By showing this world through the eyes of a child who is both observant yet uncomprehending, Jacobsen strips away the hypocrisy of the adults, exposing in them exactly the same kind of brutal competitiveness which drives the relationships between the children on the estate. He does this, however, with compassion so that all his characters, however hopeless and misguided, are endearing and enjoyable to be with.
A wonderful coming of age novel by this Norwegian author whom I hope we shall come to know better in English.