A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (review)

Last year I read Knausgaard’s A Man in Love, the second volume in his six-book series, My Struggle, a set of novels that delve into various aspects of his own personal life. I had to jump straight in with book two as it made the IFFP longlist, a list I’d agreed to read for Stu’s Shadow project. Much to my surprise, I found A Man in Love very compelling, and while it didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t started with book one, I’ve been meaning to plug the gap ever since. A Death in the Family is that first volume in the series, but it turned out to be a very different book to the one I’d expected.

The title A Death in the Family refers to the painful demise of Karl Ove’s father, a man who died before his time in horrific circumstances. At the time of writing this first volume, Karl Ove is forty and living in Sweden with his second wife, Linda, and their three children. He is struggling to balance the demands of family life alongside his burning desire to write something exceptional. For several years he has tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to write a novel about his father. Finally he finds a form that will suit, enabling him to tell it as it is: A Death in the Family is the result.

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The book is divided into two very different parts. The first section begins with a short meditation on death: how as a society we tend to draw a veil over the whole subject; how dead bodies are hidden away and stored as close to the ground as possible. It’s as if there is ‘something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence we came.’ It’s a stark and powerful opening, one that drew me into the opening pages of the book, and I was all set for Karl Ove to disclose the story of his own father’s departure.

Before we get to the meat of the novel though, there’s some scene setting to cover. So for the remainder of the first section, Karl Ove looks back over his childhood and teenage years giving us a sense of the troubled nature of his relationship with his father. Here’s an early memory of suppertime in the Knausgaard household, a passage I found especially revealing and poignant – the plates and glasses are for Karl Ove and his elder brother, Yngve:

If mum was on the evening shift, dad did everything: when we came into the kitchen there were two glasses of milk and two plates, each with four slices of bread plus toppings, waiting for us. As a rule, he had prepared the food beforehand, and then kept it in the fridge, and the fact that it was cold made it difficult to swallow, even when I liked the toppings he had chosen. If mum was at home there was a selection, either hers of ours, of meats, cheeses, jars on the table and this small touch, which allowed us to choose what would be on the table or on our sandwiches, in addition to the bread being at room temperature, this was sufficient to engender a sense of freedom in us… (pg. 15, Vintage Books)

Suppers with mother are relaxed and happy affairs, the children helping to lay the table and chatting away about anything and everything. Karl Ove’s mother is interested in what the boys have to say and doesn’t mind if they make a bit of a mess at the table. By contrast, the boys seem fearful of their father, lowering their voices and sitting up ‘as stiff as pokers’ when he enters the kitchen. I would have liked to hear more about Karl Ove’s mother, but she is largely absent from the story either working or away from the family home for whatever reason.

These early fragments aside, I have to admit to disengaging from large chunks of the first part of this book, particularly the passages covering Karl Ove’s teenage years. During this time, Karl Ove and Yngve’s parent split up. We follow Karl Ove as he develops a love of indie music and proceeds to drift about like a typical teenager, all captured in the minutest of detail. There’s an extremely lengthy passage depicting Karl Ove’s movements and those of his friends one New Year’s Eve: their attempts to procure alcohol and to conceal it from their parents; their efforts to find a party as they mill around from one location to another. My recall of this passage is more than a little fuzzy as my mind was wandering at this point. If truth be told, I find the teenage Knausgaard far less interesting than his adult counterpart. I was waiting for the grip of the narrative to kick in, and it came once I started part two.

The second section focuses on the death of Karl Ove’s father, or more precisely, the aftermath and fallout from this event. At some point following the breakdown of his marriage, Karl Ove’s father moves back to the old family home to live with the boys’ grandmother. He turns to the bottle becoming highly dependent on alcohol to get by, and when Karl Ove hears of his father’s death, there’s a sense that it is not entirely unexpected.

Throughout his life, Karl Ove had tried to impress his father but without success, his efforts failing to gain the recognition he craved. At first he appears to feel very little for the loss of his father; it’s as if there is an absence of any response. But as he travels home to Norway, the emotions flood through his body. When Karl Ove sees his brother Yngve in the airport arrivals hall, the tears come:

He turned his head and met my gaze. I was about to smile, but at that moment my lips twisted, and with a pressure it was impossible to resist, the emotions from earlier rose again. They found vent in a sob, and I began to cry. Half-raised my arm to my face, took it back down, a new wave came, my face puckered once again. I will never forget the look on Yngve’s face. He watched me in disbelief. There was no judgement in it, it was more like him watching something he could not understand, and had not expected, and for which therefore he was completely unprepared. (pgs. 225-6)

I mentioned earlier that this book turned out to be very different to the one I’d expected. I simply wasn’t prepared for the intensity and horror of what Karl Ove and Yngve have to face when they arrive at the family home. Their father must have been living in abject squalor, drinking himself into the ground until death finally arrived. Here’s a tiny excerpt from the scene (it gets much, much worse than this):

Yngve stood in the hall surveying the scene. The blue wall-to-wall carpet was covered with dark stains and marks. The open built-in wardrobe was full of lose bottles and bags of them. Clothes had been tossed all over the place. More bottles, clothes hangers, shoes, unopened letters, advertising brochures and plastic bags were strewn across the floor.

But the worst was the stench.

What the hell could reek like that?

‘He’s destroyed everything,’ Yngve said, slowly shaking his head. (pgs. 255-6)

This second section of the novel is astonishing. It takes the brothers several days to systematically clear and clean each room in the house; the amount of filth and detritus they have to wade through is unlike anything I might have imagined. The writing is raw and candid, giving the narrative an unfiltered feel – nothing is spared. I found the scenes involving Karl Ove’s grandmother especially distressing: a woman quite possibly experiencing the early symptoms of dementia, wasting away to nothing and retreating into herself. She’s been living through it all, and it’s heart-breaking to read.

There is a sense that Knausgaard has written this book as a way of exorcising the ghost of his father. As the house clearance and funeral preparations continue, there are times when he is overcome with emotion, and the tears flow freely. We are left with the picture of a man trying to come to terms with a number of things, not only the death of his father but the misery and pain that has accumulated over many years.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book – they include Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger. Helen has written about the series.

A Death in the Family (tr. by Don Bartlett) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20 in my #TBR20.

53 thoughts on “A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (review)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read the first one in the series either – but I am hooked on the series. I don’t know quite what makes it so compelling. The raw honesty, perhaps? The going off on tangents? The sense of recognition? Not easy to find over here, will have to wait for a trip to England to get all the ones that have been translated so far.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s a combination of the candour, the rawness of emotion and the sense of recognition you’ve mentioned. Even though I haven’t experienced the same things as Knausgaard, I’ve seen friends in similar situations. Thinking about volume two for a moment, I certainly recognise many of the demands and challenges he describes in raising three small children, all very close to one another in age. I’ve seen the exhaustion and tension this can create.

      I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of this first volume whenever you get a chance to track it down. I found it very different to A Man in Love. The second half of A Death in the Family is so dark and upsetting, much more distressing than I’d anticipated. I’m going to have to leave a gap of several months before I even think about the possibility of volume three…

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Wow, great review Jacqui, I’m still to join the party and have my reservations, but when I’m ready I’ll certainly read one to find out for myself. I couldn’t help thinking of this series when I read Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie recently, it felt like the antithesis of what I expect Karl Ove to be.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. In some ways, I’m quite glad I started with A Man in Love as it’s an easier book to get into than the first volume. There’s more humour in the second book, and I just found it more engaging and more compelling than A Death in the Family. That said, the second section of Death is extraordinary…but it’s also very upsetting. I may have to put Knausgaard to one side for the foreseeable future…

      Gosh, yes! I’m sure Knausgaard volume three (Boyhood Island) would be a complete contrast to Cider with Rosie. Interested to hear your thoughts on Knausgaard should you decide to give him a go!

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I’ve heard a lot about these books and they do sound very powerful if demanding. I think I would like to read them, but I think I’d have to be in the right frame of mind…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Demanding is a good description – I felt drained by volume one. Oddly enough, I found volume two much easier to get into (even though I hadn’t read the first one) so I’m tempted to advise others to consider starting there.

      Reply
  4. gertloveday

    Agree very much about the power of the second half. I read Vol 1 first and I found A Man in Love a bit tedious by comparison. I know what you mean about the teenage Karl Ove not being all that interesting, but the adult KO is a bit of a pain in the neck. The portrait of his father given in the 3rd in the series throws a very interesting backlight on the events of Vol 1. Just waiting for Vol 4!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting, and I know of other readers who also preferred volume one to the second instalment. I wonder whether it’s partly to do with reading order – perhaps one’s first experience of Knausgaard remains the most compelling, the most powerful? I really liked the humour in A Man in Love. You’re right though, adult Karl Ove is a bit of one, but I found him all the more fascinating for being so candid about his feelings!

      I’m very intrigued by what you say about the picture of KO’s father in book three. When I finished A Death in the Family I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue with the series, but your comments have made me want to read that third book.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. Yes, very much so – certain sections are very powerful and draining, but the pacing is a bit variable. They’re interesting books, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to hear. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry on with the series after this reading this one, but book three is starting to sound increasingly appealing.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    This sounds very good.

    The part about cleaning up the cluttered filth ridden house seems a bit odd but when I think about it can be a strong literary device. I can see how such things can be portrayed in an extremely disturbing way. It also sounds realistic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it all feels so realistic because these novels appear to be highly autobiographical, and the rawness and candour of the writing only add to that impression. The house clearance is very distressing. It does feel like a symbolic act, a means of purging his life of all the hurt and bitterness that built up over the years. An emotional cleansing as well as a physical one.

      I don’t know how well the books have been received in the US, but they’ve been a bit of a sensation over here.

      Reply
  6. hastanton

    Great review Jacqui ….I actually found all the detail really compelling and was lulled into a false sense of security in Pt 1 …so that the second part of the book bowled me over entirely . It really is so cleverly constructed ….even tho he makes out its a stream of consciousness outpouring . I’m afraid Book 3 is pretty dark too . I am eagerly awaiting book 4 as I am now hooked ….and to seeing the man himself next week . I may scream like the girls seeing The Beatles in the 60s !!!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Helen. Ah, I remember you saying how much you enjoyed book two! I’m with you on the construction certainly as far as A Man in Love goes. Even though he loops around and returns to the same themes, there seems to be a conscious pattern to it, some kind of overarching vision.

      I think I will read Boyhood Island (even though I wasn’t sure I’d continue after the distress of book one). I’m going to leave it for a good few months though especially as there’s more darkness to come. Have fun at the Knausgaard event next week…I look forward to hearing all about it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This first volume is much darker than the second one (A Man in Love). I’m curious to see how you get on with them. I very nearly bailed on book one as the first section (with the exception of the opening 15-20 pages) meandered about so much…a bit like an aimless teenager. There’s a chance you’ll get frustrated with it. The real meat’s in the second section.

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I’m reading a Victorian Sensation novel that is more sobfest than sensation so far. I’m still waiting for one of those wicked women to come out from the wings.

        Reply
  7. Caroline

    I bought the first but have read so many really negative reviews – not about the topic but about the writing as such – that I wasn’t tempted anymore. Now I’m curious again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s worth trying just to see how you find it, but this first volume is a book of two halves (certainly in terms of the power of the content). I liked the rawness and candour of the writing. Helen’s right though. It can read like a big outpouring of stuff and feelings, almost confessional in style even though it’s probably more systematic than it appears at first sight.

      Reply
  8. Col

    I’ve got the first two of these waiting but every time I pick them up I get this heavy feeling in my head – I’ve been debating whether or not to start them for months! I might take your skim the first half advice and try and get into them that way! There’s something about them on the shelves – for some weird reason every time I see them I feel guilty I haven’t read them!!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Your comment made me laugh. A heavy feeling in your head…that’s kind of how I felt after reading volume one! The second half of A Death in the Family is very dark indeed, so if you don’t feel up to the trauma I suggest you start with A Man in Love. It’s quite funny in places, and I just found it easier to get into than book one. Both volumes (especially the second one) move back and forth in time a fair bit, so I don’t think it matters too much where you begin.

      Reply
      1. Col

        Well as my motto is very much anything for an easy life I will pass on Death in Family and go straight to volume 2! ( which makes it sound like a Chance card in Monopoly!!)

        Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    I was discussing these on twitter the other day, I remain strangely untempted despite a fair few positive reviews. There just seems so much of it, and it’s not clear to me there needs to be so much of it.

    A slightly odd question, it always sounds to me incredibly male in a rather self-indulgent way. Is that massively unfair? That sense of “what I do is important and somehow resonant of wider and deeper truths”, “my suffering is profound and reflects universal sorrows and the human condition”, that sort of philosophical man-flu where the same concerns expressed by women get regarded as essentially domestic. I haven’t read it so I probably am being massively unfair.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know what you mean. There is a lot of it, and quite frankly, I could have done without most of the first half of A Death in the Family. It was worth reading for the second section even if I did find it distressing.

      Your thought on the maleness and possible self-indulgence of this series…it’s not an odd question at all. I don’t think you’re being massively unfair, there’s definitely an element of truth in what you say. I haven’t read any of Rachel Cusk’s work, but her books on motherhood and the breakdown of her marriage received very mixed reactions (and quite different in nature to responses to the Knausgaard series). If women write about these things, then it does seem to be perceived (by some) as domestic and possibly narcissistic too. Personally, I can’t speak to any comparisons as I haven’t read anything similar to the Knausgaards by a female writer. I probably ought to at some stage just to compare.

      Part of me hates myself for getting hooked on Knausgaard as it is very self-indulgent at times (and he can be very annoying), but it’s also terribly addictive. He does seem to lay himself bare (warts and all), and there is something very compelling about this. I liked the second volume very much as there was quite a bit of humour especially in the scenes with his family. This first book is a different beast though; the second half is much darker, very upsetting, so much so that I considered abandoning the series at the end of A Death. But…Gert’s comments, in particular, have made me want to read book three as I’m curious about the father. Book one only shares part of the story of Knausgaard’s relationship with his father; there’s unfinished business, so I’m going to have to read Boyhood Island at some point. It’s like a scab: you know you should pick it, but it’s hard to keep away.

      Does that answer your question or help in any way? If not, please come back to me.

      Reply
  10. Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I strongly recommend this recent article from The Hudson Review to anyone curious about Knausgaard. Bawer has read all 6 books, and read them in Norwegian, and read them in Norway, all of which make a difference. Max’s question, for example, is addressed directly, and the answer, although mildly horrifying, is to Knausgaard’s credit.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks for the link to this article, Tom. I hadn’t seen it (or the Hudson Review, in general). Fascinating stuff, very enlightening…

      I agree with what Bawer says about the less scintillating parts of My Struggle adding to the impact of the most powerful sections. That’s very true of book two where we see Knausgaard trying to navigate normality, the mundane periods of everyday life that come between the peaks of emotional intensity: falling in love with Linda, the birth of his first child, Vanya.

      I’m off to read the article again as there’s so much in it. Cheers for bringing it to our attention.

      Reply
  11. litlove

    I’ve got this first volume, which I bought when I went to hear Knausgaard speak at the local literary festival (he was very charismatic). I’d gone for my Canadian friend who is the most enormous fan and longed for his autograph. But I haven’t managed to get around to it somehow. I’m thinking now that I would do better to start with volume 2, as I could really relate to the stories of bringing up children, and I do like books that have a witty line or two. I know I ought to start with volume 1 but I do believe in giving any new author the best chance of success with me! Lovely review as ever, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that must have been very interesting! Given your comments, I think it might be good idea for you to start with A Man in Love! (Both volumes move back and forth in time a fair bit, so I don’t think it matters too much where you start as long as the subject matter appeals.) I should probably clarify my comments about the humour in book two as it tends to stem from the scenes where Knausgaard is trying to juggle the demands of family life. You could describe it as a wincing humour as we’re reading about situations that are painful for him (but mildly funny for us as observers!). The opening section (covering a day out during the summer holidays) is a great example.

      Reply
  12. A Little Blog of Books

    A Man in Love is definitely less intense than A Death in the Family and I think I preferred the second volume overall. I haven’t read Boyhood Island yet and the fourth is coming out soon so I am getting behind!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I will read Boyhood Island – perhaps later this year. Dancing in the Dark is pretty imminent, isn’t it? I hadn’t realised it was coming out quite so soon.

      Reply
  13. Richard

    I have volume 1 of Knausgaard’s opus but have yet to make time for it, which may be good timing in that I’ll now be better prepared for how heavy duty it is (I didn’t remember that or was conveniently unaware of it at the time I bought it). Thanks! Still, I’m chuckling at the amount of people whom you have either scared off of Knausgaard or at least have scared off of starting with volume 1. That seems so strange to me–like deliberately starting to watch a movie half an hour after the beginning. To each his/her own and all that, but still… :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha. I hope I haven’t put too many people off altogther!

      Well, I’ll be very interested to hear what you make of Knausgaard! I think you’ll be fine with volume one…just stick with it as the second section is more intense and gripping than the first. To be fair, I probably found it particularly affecting because I had to clear my mother’s flat when she died several years ago. The situation was nowhere near as bad as the one Knausgaard had to deal with, but she died suddenly, and there was so much to sort out. It felt as though I was throwing a little piece of her life away with every item. As I say, nowhere near as traumatic as Knausgaard’s experience, but it stirred up some memories. I guess we all have to deal with something similar at some stage in our lives.

      I like your movie analogy, but the Knausgaard books move back and forth in time so much that it don’t think it matters if some readers start with the second one! If the narrative were linear, it would be a different matter altogether…

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    Great review, Jacqui. I do remember the New Year’s Eve scene – it does go on at some length! But one of the interesting things about the teenage Knausgaard is how uninteresting he is; there’s no suggestion he is a great writer in waiting, as seen in so much autobiographical fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s very true – it’s difficult to see the potential writer in teenage Knausgaard. Had I started the series with book one there’s a fair chance I would have bailed on it before the end of the first section!

      Have you read the third one yet? I wondered if you might be reading it with possibilities for the IFFP longlist in mind.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Many thanks, Richard – I’ll take a look at Rise’s review. You may have seen my reply to Tom, but if not, Scott has also reviewed Knausgaard’s angel story (see below for a link).

        Reply
  15. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Emma

    I’m perplexed about this writer, who, like Sebald, seems to be read a lot in the English speaking world and is barely present in French. None of his books have made it into paperbacks. There’s La mort d’un père (the one you just reviewed) and Un homme amoureux.

    I’m not terribly attracted to what we call in French “autofiction” (does that word exist in English) It’s writers writing about themselves but not as an autobiography, mixing their life and fiction. All these raw feelings and facts sound a bit “impudique” to me, meaning at the same time shameless, indecent and immodest.

    PS : I should be used to it by now, with all the foreign books I’ve read. But still, having sandwiches for diner at home still sounds weird to me. :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s really interesting as I had no feel whatsoever for his reputation in France (or other European countries). The books have been a bit of sensation over here – the fourth instalment has just come out so I imagine several readers are ploughing their way through it right now. I wonder why they’re less well-known in France. Less promotion? A different cultural environment?

      Yes, the word ‘autofiction’ exists, a kind of fictionalised autobiography. I’m not usually a fan of this approach either, but there’s something about the apparent candour and raw honesty of these Knausgaard books that gets under your skin (well, for me anyway). They do read like an extended memoir.

      There are difficulties though, and his revelations have caused friction within the Knausgaard family. Part of me hates myself for getting hooked on them as there is something immodest about baring your soul and exposing your family in this way.

      Funnily enough, the sandwiches-for-supper thing felt quite true to life to me. I can recall having banana and peanut butter sandwiches for tea, especially when I was young! :-)

      Reply

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