2012 Books in Translation Memoirs

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

A Death in the Family Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Five words from the blurb: childhood, teenage, Norway, father, death

Karl Ove Knausgaard is a publishing phenomenon in Norway. His controversial fictional memoir has dominated the best seller lists there for the last three years. The discussions about this book intrigued me and so I made a note of the title, keen to read it once the English translation appeared. An unsolicited review copy dropped through my letter box and so I was lucky enough to read this before publication, but it was only once I’d finished reading it that I discovered that this is actually the first of six books, totalling over 3000 pages.

A Death in the Family covers Karl Ove Knausgaard’s childhood and teenage years. Very little happens, but the writing is so vivid that this doesn’t really matter. I’m normally bored by simple coming-of-ages stories, but the insight and tiny details brought this book to life. I think this is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever come across and I can only imagine the fantastic book he’d produce if the subject matter was more exciting.

The quality of the writing is so good that it is possible to open the book randomly and find a good quote. On top of the realistic portrayal of family life there are thought provoking philosophical questions and advice about being a writer:

You know too little and it doesn’t exist. You know too much and it doesn’t exist. Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows.

I think this book will have greater appeal to men because they’ll have experienced most of the events and so have the ability to reminisce about their childhood. The masculine outlook on life will be of interest to women, but there wont be the same level of connection.

I wouldn’t knowingly start a 3000 page autobiography about a Norwegian writer, but now that I’ve read the first section I am keen to read the rest. I’m sure that his adult life will contain more complexity than his childhood, but even if it doesn’t I’ll be happy learning about Knausgaard’s outlook on life.

Recommended to anyone who appreciates great writing.


After reading this book the majority of Knausgaard’s family no longer have anything to do with him. You can read more about the controversy surrounding this book here.



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