Doghead, by Morten Ramsland. Published 2009 by St. Martin's Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Swedish.
Doghead is an odd, yet curiously endearing novel about a dysfunctional Norweigan family, headed by Grandma Bjork and Grandpa Askild, a mismatched couple whose own tumultuous love story merely forms the backdrop to this tale of eccentrics and nutters. Told from the perspective of their grandson Asger from his grandmother's deathbed, it's less a narrative than a collection of family stories, told more or less chronologically, culminating in the tragic death of one family member and the self-recrimination of another.
Wildly heralded in Europe- winner of the Danish Best Novel and Best Author awards, as well as Book of the Year, the Reader's Prize and the 2005 Golden Laurel Prize- Doghead has been slow to catch on stateside. I think it's gone unnoticed largely due to the title, which manages to both capture the spirit of the story and tell the reader exactly nothing about what to expect.
The most telling thing about the novel is the detailed family tree which accompanies it, not just because it will help readers keep the names and relationships straight, but for the sake of all those nicknames. That Asger's father Niels Junior, for example, is alternately referred to as "Jug Ears," "The Nut Kicker" and "Dad," and that his sister Anne Katrine goes by such descriptors as "Stupid Tomato" and "The Little Bitch" should begin to tell you a little about this family. Asger's mother's family lacks colorful appellations, but they too have enough family issues to fill a newsstand.
I think Doghead would make for an offbeat book club read, character-centric and slightly long-winded as it is; not a lot happens, outside of the recitation of various adventures and family secrets, but it's a fun little ride. So many images and stories stay with me- the suit Jug Ears has to wear, which his mother thinks will prevent beatings by the neighbor kids, young Askild ("Crackpot") saving money in a mattress to be worthy of his beloved Bjork only to wind up in a Nazi concentration camp for smuggling, and Bjork hiding letters from beguiling bad girl Marianne to lovelorn Jug Ears. And Bjork's obsession with medical romance novels. And more. I had a lot of fun following this family's adventures and misadventures alike, and I hope more people get a chance to wander down Ramsland's meandering trails.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.