Regarded as a national obsession in his native Norway, ‘A Death in the Family’ is the first book in the six volume ‘My Struggle’ series of autobiographical novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Despite being marketed as fiction, ‘My Struggle’ is an unflinchingly honest and controversial memoir which explores both the mundane everyday details and the more significant events in Knausgaard’s life.
The focus of this first volume is on Knausgaard’s difficult relationship with his alcoholic father both during his youth in the 1980s and as an adult. To say that he is frank about his life is something of an understatement. The second half of the book is particularly grim, especially the passage where he and his brother Yngve are clearing out his grandmother’s house shortly after his father’s death. It came as no surprise to me that half of Knausgaard’s family are no longer speaking to him not only because he has exposed very personal details about their lives but also because he didn’t even change their names.
The series has been compared to Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ most notably because of its epic scale across several volumes as well as Knausgaard’s penchant for very long paragraphs. Unsurprisingly, the writing is a bit rambling in places. Knausgaard doesn’t tell his story in chronological order and tends to drift between his childhood memories and accounts of more recent events. Much of it reads like a stream of consciousness and there is no plot or structure to speak of – it begins where it begins and it ends where it ends. However, despite skimming a few of the more philosophical digressions, I think the majority of the text itself is very readable despite the lack of structure and chapter breaks. In his review of ‘A Death in the Family’, the critic James Wood said that “even when I was bored, I was interested” and I would largely agree with that statement. It is not a perfect book but Knausgaard’s painfully honest account of his adolescent experiences and his father’s death remains compelling throughout.
I have reserved a copy of the second volume ‘A Man in Love’ at the library and the third instalment ‘Boyhood’ is due to be published in the UK in March. However, even if all six volumes were currently available in English, I don’t think I would have chosen to read them all in one go partly because I usually try and vary my reading anyway but mainly I think I would need regular breaks from reading something so intense. On the other hand, the “ending” of ‘A Death in the Family’ is so inconclusive that I am already curious as to what happens next and it will be interesting to see whether or not Knausgaard sustains the same level of intensity across the next five volumes. Somehow, I have a feeling that ‘A Death in the Family’ is just the beginning of what is likely to be a very long, eventful and highly controversial journey.