Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, ‘Boyhood Island’ is the third instalment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ambitious six-book cycle of autobiographical novels known as ‘My Struggle’. Having explored some of Knausgaard’s later childhood in ‘A Death in the Family‘, the second volume ‘A Man in Love‘ jumped forward in time to concentrate on his experiences of fatherhood. As you may guess from the title, ‘Boyhood Island’ jumps back in time again to Knausgaard’s childhood.
‘Boyhood Island’ focuses almost entirely on Knausgaard’s early life in the 1970s primarily between the ages of approximately six and thirteen living with his parents and his brother Yngve on the small island of Tromøya off the southern coast of Norway. As ever, Knausgaard captures his childhood experiences very vividly in characteristically detailed prose. In particular, his relationship with his alcoholic father is explored further although, in many ways, he remains something of an enigma despite largely dominating the book.
I read ‘A Death in the Family’ and ‘A Man in Love’ quite close together early last year and while I enjoyed both volumes, I also thought they were both very intense, particularly the first book. While I had been expecting ‘Boyhood Island’ to be largely more of the same in terms of style – and much of it is – there are a few differences. There is noticeably less jumping backwards and forwards in time and even though the prose is virtually plotless moving from one anecdote to another, the narrative is less meandering compared with the two other volumes. Consequently, I also think this volume felt more “fictional”, whereas I was previously more conscious that Knausgaard was writing a very personal and heavily autobiographical account when reading the first two. I don’t know if Knausgaard did this deliberately or not, but I’m glad he didn’t maintain that level of emotional intensity on top of the sprawling prose.
‘A Death in the Family’ and ‘A Man in Love’ were longlisted and shortlisted respectively for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2013 and 2014. Knausgaard and translator Don Bartlett have now made it a hat-trick with ‘Boyhood Island’ which has also been longlisted for this year’s Prize. It is certainly the “quieter” and slightly less harrowing volume in the cycle so far and it’s possible that the lack of novelty may prevent it from progressing further to the shortlist. Moreover, while I found the marginally more conventional style of ‘Boyhood Island’ quite refreshing, I expect that reading it as an individual volume might be quite an underwhelming experience without the context of the other books in the cycle.