When Me and God Were Little by Mads Nygaard, trans. by Steve Schein

A rocky childhood on the Danish North Sea is rendered in weird but apt terms by an extraordinary young narrator.

Mads Nygaard’s When Me and God Were Little, translated by Steve Schein, is a stark portrayal of a hardscrabble childhood in a blue-collar, small town in Denmark, on the coast of the North Sea. Its narrator is seven-year-old Karl Gustav (who would rather be called Big Ox), and his distinctive point of view is filled with preposterous details that make perfect sense to him. “In our town you couldn’t drown barefoot,” he begins, and yet his big brother, Alexander, has managed to do just that, permanently upsetting Karl Gustav’s worldview.

His father is a drunk, but owns his own business building houses, and “Our house was so big that Mom still hadn’t gotten around to vacuuming all the rooms.” “Dad weighed 250 pounds and it was all muscle, except for the hair,” but then Dad goes to jail (something about the papers in his file drawers; the young narrator isn’t concerned with the details), so Karl Gustav and his mother move into a county-owned house in a new town. Unperturbed, the child carries on obsessing over soccer (he plays alone over four fields through the winter) and terrorizing his teachers. Years pass, very few friends come and go, and readers follow Karl Gustav’s experiments with porn, disastrous employment, grifting, a doomed love affair with another damaged young person and a developing relationship with his father. The loss of his brother will always loom large, for Alexander was a hero: “He just smiled, knowing everything.” But other losses accrue, as Karl Gustav learns more about the wide, perplexing world. By the book’s end, the narrator is a teenager, perhaps still ungainly, but wiser for the trials he’s seen.

This is an unusual novel, its narrator’s voice colorful, unpolished and unforgettable in Schein’s gruff translation. It is Karl Gustav’s singular perspective that makes When Me and God Were Little the memorable, bizarre, poignant adventure that it is. It’s absurd and often fantastic, as this narrator delivers an earnestly nonsensical account of events that readers know to be impossible. And yet it rings true, because what is childhood if not nonsensical? Karl Gustav is all bluster and pain, bluffing in the face of forces bigger than he is. His story is gritty, messy but real, and there are no happy endings on this harsh coastline. The novel is filled with cigarettes and swagger and masturbation literal and figurative, often unbeautiful but somehow still lovely in its authentic, unvarnished view of a difficult coming-of-age.


This review originally ran in the October 29, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hedgehogs.

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