Life with dad: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island


In 1969 the Knausgaards, mum, dad, four year old Yngve and baby Karl Ove drive to southern Norway to a new house on a housing estate in Tromoya. The third book of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-book bio novel is an account of the first twelve years of a boy’s life in this setting.

Being Knausgaard, he gives a very frank account. He is open about being a know-all and one of the most disliked kids in his class. He, with a friend, crawls through underground drains, performs ridiculously dangerous acts like dropping rocks on cars and setting fire to grasses in the height of summer. He is obsessed with his appearance and the size of his bum. He makes frequent mention of his buck teeth (which by the end of the book have been straightened by orthodontic work not referred to before). He is excessively frank about his bowel habits in his early years, the delicious sensation of holding on to his stool for days until the pleasure turns to pain and he has to have a long excruciating session in the lavatory. He is drawn passionately to girls from a very early age and is mocked by his tendency to ‘blub’ at very little provocation.

He is also observant and responsive to the climate and environment around him and active within it. He gives a wonderful insight into a boy’s life in a place and time: running and cycling through the woods, playing football, swimming, skiing, boating. The time he spends on his grandparent’s farm is a fascinating record of a life in a remote rural area of Norway. The grandfather has fruit trees, bee-hives, even minks kept for fur. And his grandmother is warm and loving, the only person who ever hugs him.

This book was preceded by A Death in the Family and A Man in Love. By the time we come to this, the third in the series, we have encountered mum, Yngve his older brother and, of course, dad. The first book began when Karl Ove was a teenager, still having to hide things from dad, but less under his power. The most powerful section of the first book takes place after his father’s death, where he has to clean up the filthy mess the father, who had become an alcoholic, has left behind him. It is said that his uncle, ‘Gunnar’ in this narrative, no longer speaks to him because of the way his father is depicted. Why so open about the failings of his father and the pitiful state he is reduced to?

In Boyhood Island dad is at the height of his powers, controlling and unpredictable. The dead hand of dad on the family life, the way his sons sit at meals waiting to be given permission to leave, the irrational bursts of fury, the mocking of Karl Ove’s difficulty in saying his r’s, cause his sons to hate him. His occasional attempts to share their lives and to be friendly are never trusted. And usually he loses interest or his anger rises at their lack of enthusiasm or what he perceives as their incompetence.

The constant attempt by the boy to read his father’s moods or the meaning of a certain glint in his eye, the vigilance needed to avoid doing anything that might annoy or irritate his father or break any of his many rules create the undercurrent to his life, and cause a constant tension in the reader. Against rhapsodic accounts of yet again falling in love, of riding home possessed by thoughts of his latest crush, a sudden chill falls when dad is unexpectedly home early.

An account of a typical meal:

Knives and forks clinking on plates, elbows moving, heads held stiff, straight backs. No one saying a word. That is us three, a father and two sons, sitting and eating. Around us on all sides, it is the 70s.

The silence grows. And we notice it, all three of us, the silence is not the kind that can ease, it is the kind that lasts a lifetime. Well, of course you can say something inside it, you can talk, but the silence doesn’t stop for that reason.

All too often the tension becomes unbearable for the boy. He throws himself on his bed weeping, full of rageful fantasies of hurting and humiliating his father.

Boyhood Island reveals a great deal about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s relationship with his father and why he might be merciless in showing him in his decline. Who knows the exact truth of his words, but this account feels deeply convincing.

Book Four of My Struggle will be released March 2015. We await it with impatience.


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4 thoughts on “Life with dad: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Boyhood Island

  1. Great review. I jumped on board the Knausgaard train at book 2, A Man in Love, as earlier this year I agreed to read the IFFP longlist with a few other bloggers. It found it utterly compelling: even the smallest of details, the most mundane things, take on a significance in his hands. I’m planning to flip back and read the first book early next year as I felt the need to put a bit of space between the two.

  2. He certainly has the capacity to weave the reader in. The first book is a bit slow at first then we found we were obsessed with it. Now a year between translations seems a long time.

  3. Thanks Book Guy. There’ s more to come when we get our paws on Vol 4. We follow very few blogs but we do keep a list of blogs that interest us, and visit them regularly, You’re on the list.

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