Boyhood Island is a no nonsense autobiographical tale of a boy called Karl Ove Knausgaard, aged 6-13 years old and his everyday adventures living and growing on the island of Tromøya, Norway in the late 70’s.
This is a strange and unusual novel in that it doesn’t follow traditional novelistic or storytelling conventions. It’s a meandering and slow burn type of thing that is experimental in prose and form.
The reason that Knausgaard’s books are so addictive and compelling is that they describe the common place and the everyday events of our lives in remarkable and sparkling detail, rendering them glimmering and compelling. In this way his themes and the long, ponderous and often uneventful days of his young life are rendered as something remarkable, and they are totally relatable. In most books a lot of things happen to propel the plot forward. A person dies, a personal trial or challenge is faced. Conversely in Knausgaard’s books you get the sense that there is no struggle except for the struggle inside, a struggle that’s largely imperceptible to the outside world – the struggle for self-discovery and the corporeal realities of living in your body. This is what makes his books noble and beautiful while also making them chaotic, messy and full of raging hormones.
The ability to write about mundane events in a straight-forward way and yet still have the book remain compelling is the mark of a true writer. Knausgaard is like a Scandanavian Proust in this way, illuminating the formerly inconsequential monotonies of all our lives with his writing. Despite the success of his five part series Min Kamp (my struggle in Norwegian), Knausgaard himself considers the books to be crappy and is ashamed of them.
Although that mirrors the fact that he spends a great deal of time in Boyhood Island talking about his fraught and tragic relationship with his father who would routinely ridicule him and humiliate him as a child and teen. This shame is writ large within the book and after reading it, the shame becomes a shared and dissolved horror that can be better channelled towards his own healing and recovery.
I came late to the game with this one and started the five part series at book three. Although it shouldn’t matter where you begin, as each book is a self-contained world of stories. As the literary phenomenon du jour – Min Kamp has gained a massive cult following in the same way as W.G Sebald or Roberto Bolano’s books have gained a following. Despite the hullabaloo of these books I have taken the bait and also I now remain committed to them. And as Zadie Smith famously stated which is emblazoned on the back cover of the book, ‘I need the next book like crack cocaine’. Well yes I can relate to that.
By exposing himself like a piece of driftwood to the Scandanavian elements, Knausgaard’s body, mind and is soul laid bare in Boyhood Island for all to see. His tell-all expose of his childhood on the island of Tromøya is without artifice or pretence and so it has an almost revelatory, sacred quality. It’s as comforting and familiar to me as having a strong cup of tea on a stormy afternoon. It puts into words the ineffable about my own childhood and no doubt the childhoods of many other people. And so it’s actually a collective nostalgia for a time, place, frame of reference and understanding of the world that’s lost to humans as they become adults. The fact that as an adult, he’s a good looking sort with large saucer-like blue eyes and a sensitive looking face also helps in the imagination stakes.
If I went in that direction, simply writing down things I had experienced, using my own name, it was as if all concerns about style, form, literary devices, character, tone, distance, at once ceased to exist and the vestments of literature suddenly became unnecessary posturing: all I had to do was write. But it wasn’t only the freedom of this that now fuelled the writing, it was also the unprecedented nature of it, the fact that to a large degree what I was doing was forbidden. – Karl Ove Knausgaard