The title comes from a Mao poem: "Fragile images of departure/ the village back then. I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed."
Perhaps this book is a meditation, perhaps it is a reflection that enjoins the reader to slow down while reading and enter into the meditation. Time is certainly a character in this book.
Arvid Jansen, the melancholy narrator, reflects on his life when he is confronted with the weakening of three structures in his life that acted as his sources of stability: marriage, his mother, and his political beliefs; but now his marriage is ending in divorce, his mother’s cancer diagnosis means that he may never garner her approval, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall is the final nail in his belief in communism.
Arvid, the son of working class parents, had quit college after two years because he was enamored with communism. He feels he must join the proletariat and work in a factory. In time he realizes that the choice he made was foolish. He eventually abandons the factory and works in a bookstore.
When his mother decides to travel from her home in Oslo to her homeland in Denmark. Arvid insists on going with her and her friend. She's heading for a beach house where Arvid, his parents and three brothers vacationed in the summer. It's obvious that he wants something from his mother. He wants her approval, but sees that he has consistently disappointed her. When he had told her that he left college she slapped him. His mother and father had no choice but to be working people while he threw away the chance to discover other choices.
They do share a commonality—the love of books. At a time in her life when she needs to be supported Arvid only sees his needs.
In Petterson's story characters look backwards at what had been. At one point Arvid says, "Time had passed behind my back and I had not turned to look..."
This is a book to read slowly, to savor for what it says about loss, about time. His writing, spare and stunning, engages the reader. When Arvid's mother describes the landscape of her home town she says, " ...windswept open stretch of marram grass...and the sea lay taut this morning like a blue-grass porous skin and the sky above the sea was as white as milk."
The book is a meditation — a meditation that flows just like the river of time.