I’m not sure how helpful most readers find comparisons to other authors in publishers’ blurbs. For me, they can often be irksome and some times downright inappropriate. Philip Teir’s debut comes with all sorts of comparisons – from Jonathan Franzen to John Updike; Julian Barnes to Alan Hollinghurst. It turns out to be an excellent novel in its own right, although another author did pop into my head but you’ll have to read to the end to find out who that is. Teir’s novel tells the story of the Paul family over the course of one winter. Max and Katriina have been together for thirty years, apparently happy enough but in reality things are a little scratchy, wearing a bit thin. We know that divorce is on the horizon – Teir tells us that from the start – The Winter War is the story of how they get there.
Almost sixty, Max is a professor of sociology at the University of Helsinki, struggling with all that his approaching milestone means and with his book on nineteenth century sociologist Edvard Westermarck. He’s been busy living off one piece of research, which earned him the soubriquet ‘young intellectual of the decade’, for quite some time. Katriina – who views marriage as ‘a form of reciprocal tyranny’ – works in the health service, recruiting staff to deal with Helsinki’s ageing population, travelling to the Philippines and grappling with her liberal conscience while doing so. They have two daughters. Helen, who married young, teaches high school and is the mother of two young children. Eva, twenty-nine and studying fine art in London after dropping out of her Helsinki course, is embroiled in an affair with her tutor. A fairly standard issue white middle-class family, then, with all its niggling disquiets and discontents.
The Winter War is a very satisfying novel. It draws you in with its strong but sympathetic characterisation and its knowing humour, poking gentle fun at Max and his late midlife crisis shenanigans. Teir shifts his narrative smoothly from character to character, unfolding their various struggles, unhappinesses and crises. Things are brought neatly to a head when Max’s ageing mother suffers a stroke, focusing the minds of all of them with surprising results for some. It’s a novel with much to say about marriage, at least unhappy ones but as Max says quoting Westermarck ‘people seldom talk about happy marriages…“Those are not the ones on which theatres, biographies and novelists build their dramas.”’ It’s a fine winter read, the kind of novel you can tuck yourself up and settle into. As for those comparisons, none of the aforementioned sprung to mind for me: if I was reminded of anyone it was Richard Russo who has a fine line in humour and a deft hand with characterisation.