Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is a collection of short stories and the debut book, first published in Norway in 1987, of Per Petterson, known to most American readers for his breakout novel Out Stealing Horses. Available in the US for the first time, this collection features Arvid Jansen, a recurring character in several of Petterson’s books, as a child in 1960’s Oslo.
Petterson’s prose deftly recreates the uncertainty of childhood, beginning with nightmares and bedwetting in “Ashes in His Mouth” and proceeding through Arvid’s prepubescent awareness of the trials and heartbreaks of the men around him. Arvid is an eavesdropper, hiding on the top step when he should be in bed asleep. These stories, more than anything else, explore Arvid’s ardent admiration of his father, who is a man in mourning for his parents and for the life he had before the war. One story bleeds into another, snapshots of Arvid’s childhood and his family.
The stories in this volume are rich and full, yet the book itself is startlingly short. In less than 120 pages, Petterson conveys all the emotional weight of a much longer work. I read it one sitting and could easily have begun again. Having already read In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time, I appreciated this insight into Arvid’s childhood. The books aren’t actually connected, but Arvid is in each, confusedly trying to make his way and never failing to charm me.