Reviewed by Chase Mangum
Men In My Situation follows the sorrowful stories of Arvid Jansen. It is a first person point of view told from presumably years after the events have taken place. Arvid Jansen is a middle aged author from near Oslo, Norway. The last few years of Arvid’s life have been a battle. A battle where he has lost. A lot. Some may say he has lost everything. He lost his father, mother, and his 2 older brothers in a ferry incident. He lost his wife, Turid, to divorce. He lost his 3 girls, Tone, Tine, and Vigdis to his wife in this divorce. This book follows how he handles all this loss. It is clear he is not handling incredibly well. He spends most of his nights drinking and sleeping around. He nearly never sees his daughters. The story describes all the stories that led to him to this position since his divorce.
Per Petterson is an established writer from Norway. He has been writing since the early 1990’s and has been published all over the globe. He, himself, also suffered the loss of his mother and father, as well as a sister, in the same ferry incident that Arvid does in the story. If you look at many of his books, a great deal of them have a character that suffers the same fate of losing loved ones in this ferry incident. This book seems as though it can be viewed as a semi-autobiography. A writer going through the difficulty of losing so much in just one night and Trying to find a way through it. This book also follows the same tone as much of his work. The tone has a darkness to it, along with a somber overtone. Whenever it seems as though Arvid will catch a break, something gets into his way.
Men In My Situation is a piece of realistic fiction. It has a way of playing with time throughout the story that keeps a reader on the edge of their seat. It starts from a year after the divorce of Arvid and Turid and bounces around many different events in the time since. In the midst of all this time, Arvid meets a variety of characters. Most of these characters are women and it appears as though they only are significant to show how he is still trying to get over his wife. None of these women end up being significant in Arvid’s life and it is clear that the meaningless hook-ups he has are just trying to fill a void that has been left inside of him. Arvid’s daughters are interesting characters throughout the novel. His relationship with them is a rollercoaster throughout the story. It seems as though the nature of their relationship changes each time he describes an encounter with them. Since the story plays with time so much you cannot see a real regression or progression of his relationship with his daughters. The oldest daughter, Vigdis, was the only daughter we get a true character description for. This is more than likely due to the fact that she is 12 years old while the other two are 7 and 5 respectively. Even with this, her character is not completely clear as the scenes with Vigdis and Arvid are often vague. They often become like much of the book, a self reflection of what Arvid has done wrong and how he wished things were different.
The whole story seems to be setting up for a climatic moment where Arvid turns around his life and reconnects with some of the things he’s lost. He seems so close so many times but it seems as though it always slips through his fingers. Although there never really is a moment in the book that will stick out as the most important moment, there is a great reflection throughout. Every chapter, most of which are different times in the time since Arvid’s divorce provides its own unique perspective into Arvid’s troubles. The fact that it does not follow chronological order gives it a uniqueness that you will not find in many other books. Books will give flashbacks or play with time, but I have not read one that is as effective as Petterson made this book. There is a unique ability where a reader can hop into any place in this book and jump around chapters and still find it an enjoyable experience. I think this is a talent of the writer that not many possess. There is no confusion as it is made clear where in the timeline the stories take place and honestly I was surprised by that. After reading the first few chapters I thought I would eventually be confused by where the book was going but it’s a special piece in the fact that it is clear throughout.
Although the tone of the book is dark throughout, there are pockets of light scattered all around. As a reader I found myself rooting for Arvid to turn things around. He was given a raw deal and did not handle it well but as a reader one can see he eats himself up for it. He is not the best with words with his loved ones and is not the best at mending relationships but he gives an effort that most in his situation would not. Petterson does a great job of developing a character that has been through the ringer and can start to see the other side. Petterson is a masterful wordsmith with describing characters and settings and this book is one to read for anyone who knows how difficult it is to go through a tragedy.