Book Review: A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

* No plot spoilers in this review 

A Death in the Family is Book 1 of the My Struggle six part autobiography of Karl Ove Knausgaard.

This mammoth six part memoir really grabs a hold to the marrow of his family, friends and sexual relationships – the blood and bone.

A Death in the Family is an exercise in shit-slinging that delves into the mire of Karl Ove’s family life and evocatively describes the death of his father, who succumbed in a rancid house of advanced alcoholism.

What’s so shocking and also fiendishly pleasurable, is how Karl Ove has harnessed all of the tragedy and private pain of his extended family, has written about it here. Not without some shit hitting the fan though. Behind the scenes, his uncle attempted to sue him over the depiction of the forementioned dead father.

For me, and millions of other readers, the six part series is as compelling as crack. In his native Norway half of the population have read his books. Prompting employers to have Knausgaard-free days where people don’t discuss his books at work.

The writing is by turns poetic and self-reflexive, and sometimes mundane and overly descriptive of small details. “I unscrewed the lid of the coffee tin, put two spoonfuls in my cup and poured in the water, which rose up the sides, black and steaming, then I got dressed.”

We are privy to the tiny details of Karl Ove’s life like him rolling a ciggie. “I licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch.”

Book Review: Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard

What this kind of writing does, is lulls you into the minutiae of his life, it takes you there with him right at the point where he rolls a ciggie, takes a dump, looks at his dick, has awkward teenage sex. The reader then becomes so intimate with Karl Ove that you are practically a benign part of his own body.

I haven’t actually felt that sensation reading a book before. The sense of uncomfortable inhabitation of a person’s corporeal body, warts and all. I get that vividly by reading this book.

Unlike Proust’s work though, Karl Ove delves deeply into the visceral, gothic darkness of our private lives and we are peeping toms looking in on it – completely relishing every second of the experience.

I can’t speak for any other Norwegian literature but Knausgaard does bring to mind another phenomenon that I wrote about a while ago and found fascinating about Norway. Long train trips are broadcast on Norwegian TV there, with a train slowly rolling through the rugged landscape. Hours and hours of endless changing light, water and mountains.  These broadcasts are watched by millions of people in Norway and have also achieved a cultish following. Could this be a Norwegian thing then? A loyalty to the slow invisible rhythms of life that many would say are boring, but others find hypnotic and compelling? I see parallels here.


The Hypnotic, Droll and Funny World of Norwegian Slow TV

Some reviewers wrote excoriating pieces on this book, like (perhaps my favourite writer of all time, Michel Faber) who wrote in the Guardian that we won’t be even talking about this book in 20 years time.

“Gossip is as forgetful as it is virulent. The real question about Knausgaard’s work is not whether, in the coming months, you will find yourself discussing it with friends and workmates – you probably will. The real question is whether anyone will be reading it in 20 years’ time. On the evidence of A Death in the Family, I suspect that Knausgaard’s lifelong yearning to achieve literary immortality may prove biodegradable too.”

Boom! Such a put-down. But I would say that Michel Faber is wrong here. This book is a modern À la recherche du temps perdu. Unlike Proust’s work though, Karl Ove delves deeply into the visceral, gothic darkness of our private lives and we are peeping toms looking in on it – completely relishing every second of the experience. I think these books will be read in 20 years time, because they have a cultish generational following and they speak to so many levels of human experience.

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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