This is a review of the third book Boyhood Island in Karl Ove Knausgaard's series 'My Struggle'. You can view Jared Catchpoole's review of the first book, A Death in the Family, here, and his review of the second book A Man in Love, here.
Often when we remember our childhood we recall laughter, friendship and ignorance of the trials of adulthood. However, what our memory reminds us of, and what actually happened are two distinct but inseparable things. It is usually the case that we filter memory, choosing to remember one thing and forget another. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s approach, however, has been somewhat different. Knausgaard’s series My Struggle is about the story that memory tells and Knausgaard has at times painfully exposed those things that most of us would wish to forget.
Knausgaard’s latest instalment, Boyhood Island, recalls his earliest memories living on a housing estate in Southern Norway in the 1970’s. Book three differs from the previous volumes in its point of view coming directly from Knausgaard’s childhood self.
Whether it re-imagines events to improve them or if it recalls them with brutal honesty, our memory rarely responds to conscious manipulation. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s project, My Struggle, has taken on the honest recalling of events without any filter.
Memory is not a reliable quantity in life. And it isn’t for the simple reason that memory doesn’t prioritise the truth. It is never the demand for truth that determines whether memory recalls an action accurately or not. It is self-interest which does. Memory is pragmatic, it is sly and artful, but not in any hostile or malicious way; on the contrary, it does everything to keep its host satisfied”
This begs the question then whether or not memory is by nature fiction. Memory is characteristically distant from the truth, but only in so far as it is not an accurate portrayal of something that was. It is in its own way true, but is so through becoming true in itself.
Something pushes a memory into the great void of oblivion, something distorts it beyond recognition, something misunderstands it totally, something, and this something is as good as nothing, recalls it with sharpness, clarity and accuracy. That which is remembered accurately is never given to you to determine”.
Knausgaard has said that this project is not about storytelling but about a search for meaning, understanding and ultimately selflessness. There seems to be a frustration directing Knausgaard’s pursuit and it is this desire that has kept him going. Boyhood Island continues that search.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s project takes a different turn in book three. Unlike the first two novels, Boyhood Island takes a linear, and more traditional approach to his narrative account. Boyhood Island locates a young Knausgaard on a small island in the south of Norway for the entirety of the book. Book three differs from the previous two in the absence of the writer's voice, instead focusing on the childhood experiences of the author's younger self. There is no back and forth between memory and the present. Volume three holds more distinctly to the form of a traditional novel.
However, without the back and forth between the present and the past Boyhood Island doesn’t have the same addictive quality of the first two books. And if it weren’t for the relevance of the content it would be its own book, with its own voice.
This seems somewhat of challenge as Knausgaard artistically re-imagines the thoughts and feelings of his childhood self. Similar to the previous books Boyhood Island is about much more than Knausgaard and becomes instead a representation of childhood. It is about all the struggles of childhood, friendship, isolation, identity, sex and the presence of carefree uncertainty.
Because Boyhood Island takes a far more direct approach it is in many ways straightforward, simple and easy to read. Although the underlying tension that runs through Knausgaard’s childhood relationship with his father is more palpable than in the first two books. This nervous energy hums steadily throughout the book, climaxing with his father’s explosions of anger over trivialities, a lost sock or turning on the TV. Knausgaard’s familiar childhood struggles with girls, school and music stand affront the backdrop of his family trauma.
Knausgaard’s focus on minutiae is to be seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man, and all of these seemingly incidental details are, when tied together, the portrait of a life. In the end these moments are fleeting, and as they pass by they make small impressions that are measured against other significant moments in life.
Who I am to them I have no idea, probably a vague memory of someone they once knew in their childhood years, for they have done so much to one another in their lives since then, so much has happened and with such impact that the small incidents that took place in their childhoods have no more gravity than the dust stirred up by a passing car, or the seeds of a withering dandelion dispersed by the breath from a small mouth. And oh, wasn’t the latter a fine image, of how event after event is dispersed in the air above the little meadow of one’s own history, only to fall between the blades of grass and vanish?”