"Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes," a collection of linked stories by Per Petterson, was in actual fact the writer's debut, originally published in his native Norway in 1987. The star of each tale is Arvid Jansen, a young boy growing up on the outskirts of Oslo in the early 1960s. Petterson went on to use the adult Arvid as his protagonist in his novels "In the Wake" and "I Curse the River of Time," putting him through his paces dealing with the death of his parents and the unraveling of his marriage. However, in these 10 delightful tales — available in the United States for the first time — we watch him at play through an occasionally overcast but generally sunny childhood.
Petterson's stories are short, each amounting to a brief episode or self-discovery. The opener, "A Man Without Shoes," is a sketch of Arvid's shoemaker father. "Like A Tiger in a Cage" is a portrait of his mother, a woman given to nocturnal walks. In "The Black Car," Petterson fleshes out the family and shows them enjoying an idyllic day in the country — a log cabin, a swim in a fjord, spruce trees "like a strainer that only let the good light through" — only to have the titular black car shatter the peace with a shock announcement.
Death rears its ugly head in "The King Is Dead," which finds Arvid indifferent to the news that the Norwegian monarch has died but then traumatized by the sight of a wounded bullfinch. Not only death but the whole aging process proves hard to comprehend when Arvid comes across a photo taken of his mother before he was born and compares it to the woman he knows and loves now. Mini-traumas appear as rites of passage: He has bad dreams and wets the bed, makes his first enemy with a man called Fatso, stops believing in God and is both nonplussed and disgusted by the facts of life.
When these accounts begin to border on the whimsical, Petterson injects subtle doses of humor (blustering, farmer-hating Uncle Rolf) or hard, indigestible truths (adults cry, parents fight, things die). There are none of the truly dark shadows that lap at the edges of Petterson's novels but we do get to witness the birth of his trademark sentences — long, lithe and meandering, rich with incongruous thoughts and acute observations.
In places, Arvid's adventures put us in mind of Twain ("Huckleberry Finn," we are told, is "the finest book ever written") and the boyhood exploits recorded by Petterson's compatriot Karl Ove Knausgaard in last year's "My Struggle: Book Three" (also winningly translated by Don Bartlett). However, the lilting prose and artful blend of light and shade make up Petterson's own unique talent. It's raw, early talent, but talent all the same.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.