The blurb of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes proclaims that ‘Per Petterson masters the art of writing simply about big subjects, and this is the heartwarming debut that brought the author of the highly acclaimed Out Stealing Horses to prominence’. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is a tiny book, almost pocket-sized. It has been translated from its original Norwegian by Don Bartlett, and was first published in 1987.
In Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, Petterson tells the story of Arvid Jansen, growing up on the outskirts of Oslo in the late 1960s: ‘Arvid wets his bed at night and has nightmares about crocodiles, but slowly he is beginning to piece the world together’. The third person perspective has been used throughout. The novella begins in the following way: ‘Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked’. Arvid’s father works in shoe factories, and has had to move to the Danish island of Fyn following the collapse of Norway’s shoemaking industry: ‘Arvid and Gry [his elder sister] and Mum tiptoed around waiting for the signal to follow’. Whilst his family are alone in Norway, Arvid’s father decides, much to the scorn of his own brother, that the job he has been given in Fyn is not for him, and swiftly returns to his home.
Arvid has troubled nights, filled with nightmares. Petterson vividly describes the aftermath of such dreams for his young protagonist: ‘For a moment Dad fills the doorway and the world goes black. Arvid screams, everything whirls around him, he is dizzy, and he sinks to the floor, and then his dad enters, steps through the crocodile [which Arvid believes is blocking the hallway] and it’s gone at once’.
Each chapter in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is short, and deals with a different event of importance within Arvid’s childhood – the death of his grandfather and his subsequent funeral, and the moment at which he realises he is getting older and is horrified by the fact: ‘… he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older’.
Social history has been woven in throughout, but is heard and viewed from Arvid’s naive perspective, which as a narrative tool is interesting. We as readers have the ability to see the nuances and intended meanings of speech, but Arvid does not, and he reports upon his situation accordingly – for example, ‘Aunt Kari had to take one handle of the coffin [at grandfather’s funeral] even though she was a woman, for Uncle Rolf had been so upset after the service that he wasn’t up to being a pall-bearer’, and the fact that his father is so ashamed that his Scout uniform is ‘middle class’. Arvid’s first given age is six and a half, and on the whole, he is an interesting construct. It does feel, however, that we never quite learn enough about him, due to the constraints of crafting a believable protagonist in such a short space.
The entirety of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is quite simply written. In a way, this adds to the fact that the story is supposed to have been seen through the eyes of a child, but at times it does seem a little over-simplistic. The tales which Petterson has included are rather odd on the whole, and the novella’s short length and abrupt ending makes it feel rather undeveloped. As to the ‘heartwarming’ mentioned in its blurb, it does not seem to be a word which fits with the story. Interesting, yes. Peculiar, yes. But Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is certainly not heartwarming.