Tag Archives: Finnish fiction

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (transl. Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah): What’s real and what’s not.

Cover imagePeirene Press’s books are never anything but interesting. It’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has a knack for seeking out unusual, thought-provoking fiction. For 2019 her theme is There Be Monsters. Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave follows a nineteenth-century anthropological expedition which goes horribly wrong, posing the question who are the monsters?

Iax Agolasky, a young bookish Russian, is overjoyed when renowned French explorer Jean Moltique takes him on as an assistant in his quest to find the ‘children of the shadows’ thought by Moltique to be the descendants of an ancient Anatolian tribe. Moltique appoints a crew to accompany them before they set off into the north-western Russian wilderness in May 1819 on an expedition which will stretch into 1822. It will be a year before, Moltique and Agolasky discover their tribe, shooting the first member to appear before them, by which time Moltique has been revealed as vainglorious and egotistical, his crew a bunch of ruffians. They set up camp at the mouth of the cave from which the creature, seemingly a wild boar with a human face, has appeared. Agolasky is mortified by what has happened. It is his patience and empathy which leads the tribe to eventually show themselves. These are not fabulous creatures but children displaying a variety of physical characteristics which society finds abhorrent, each with a story to tell. As Agolasky gains their trust, he becomes increasingly fearful for their safety, both from Moltique whose ambition for fame will bring the glare of publicity and from the men who see a more sinister opportunity to make money. As the years wear on, Moltique loses his wits while Agolasky falls in love and the men continue to plot until, three years after the expedition began, it’s brought to a violent end.

Sammalkorpi uses the conceit of a fragmented diary to tell her story, exploring themes of reality and unreality, and what it is to be human. The reaction to the children, left by loving parents for their own protection, found abandoned or rescued from freak shows, is all too believable. Sammalkorpi is careful to engage our sympathy for them, telling their stories through Agolasky, an empathetic and idealistic character, distraught at Moltique’s exploitation and the brutality of the men. In the diary’s final entry, written in 1868 days before his death, Agolasky reiterates the vividness of his memories while questioning their reliability. As the postscript with which Sammalkorpi cleverly ends her book suggests:

However hard we try to capture our experiences, we still cannot be totally sure about what is real and what is illusionary.

Not my favourite Peirene – that’s still Marie Suzun’s Her Father’s Daughter closely followed by And the Wind Sees All – but certainly an original one, well worth reading.

The Summer House by Philip Teir (transl. Tiina Nunnally): A smart piece of summer reading

Cover imageI reviewed Philip Teir’s debut, A Winter War, back in 2015 when I described it as the perfect winter read, a book to tuck yourself up with. It may seem a little lazy but it’s hard to resist describing The Summer House as the perfect summer read. Set against a backdrop of a long holiday spent in the Finnish countryside, Teir’s second novel explores the dynamics of modern family life.

While Julia packs up the car ready to drive to Mjölkviken, she wonders where Erik has got to, idly trying life as a single parent on for size. They drive off later than planned with ten-year-old Anton and twelve-year-old Alice, each with their own expectations and worries. Erik plans to find his way back into fatherhood after long hours spent working in the IT department of a Helsinki department store; Julia is intent on making headway with her second novel while the children fret about phone reception and how many new people they will be expected to meet. After an uneventful first week, with nothing more troubling than a bad smell emanating from the drains and the constant sound of a bouncing tennis ball, they’re invited to a midsummer party by a neighbour. Much to Julia’s surprise, Chris turns out to be the partner of her close teenage summer friend Marika who plays a starring but not very flattering role in her first novel. While Chris expounds his doomsday views on climate change, Julia frets about whether Marika has read her book and admires the couple’s apparently liberated lifestyle. Before the end of the summer, the lives of everyone at the party will have changed and Julia will have come to a realisation about her safe, secure marriage.

The Summer House offers a neat seasonal counterpart to A Winter War. Marriage, family tensions and coming-of-age are all handled with the same sympathy and deftness. Teir shifts smoothly from character to character as he unfolds each of their preoccupations and stories: Alice constantly worries about the way she looks; Julia is convinced other people’s relationships are more exciting than hers; Erik keeps his worries about work and losing Julia to himself. A violent thunderstorm brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion, complete with a dramatic revelation and the resolution of that troubling smell. With its adroitly managed characters and involving story, The Summer House is well worth thinking about if you’re after an intelligent summer read.

They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen (transl. Kristian London): Contemporary dystopia

The last Finnish novel I read was Philip Teir’s The Winter War, a witty, engrossing novel about love, marriage and divorce. Jussi Valtonen’s They Know Not What They Do encompasses much more than that but it begins with the marriage between Joe, an American neuroscientist, and Alina, the Finnish woman he meets at a conference with whom he falls in love and has a child, a relationship which lasts just a few years. Two decades later it seems that Joe may be about to pay the price of turning his back on his son and returning to the States.

Joe never quite comes to understand the Finnish, seeing them as insular and self-contained in contrast to his American colleagues. With Alina caught up in caring for Samuel, no longer sharing the details of the work with which they were both involved, their marriage begins to unravel. Fast forward twenty years and Joe is settled in Baltimore, running a university research project and living in the suburbs with his second wife and two daughters, one of whom has become involved with a shady marketing company. When Joe becomes the target of animal rights activists, the family’s carefully choreographed routines breakdown. Joe is jolted by a phone call from Alina telling him that Samuel is in the States. Given Samuel’s part in bringing down a powerful firm involved in animal testing, it seems all too likely that he’s one of those targeting Joe. Bodyguards are engaged along with the services of a techie whose job is to root out the smallest clue lurking in the interstices of the internet. This long complex novel follows Joe, Alina and Samuel, ending unexpectedly one hot Baltimore night

Valtonen begins his novel in 1994 when Joe and Alina first get together, shifting his perspective from one to the other as he unfolds each side of the story. The novel addresses a multitude of themes wrapped up in a carefully plotted story with a thread of suspense running through it. The way in which technology has invaded our lives is particularly sharply portrayed, chillingly extrapolated in the shape of the iAm, the insidious gadget Joe’s teenage daughter has been given by a marketing company masquerading as a campaign for children’s welfare. The organisations whose tentacles are deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives are unsettlingly well drawn – step forward Google – and the plotting is cleverly executed. It wasn’t an unalloyed joy for me, however. The scope is a little too ambitious – I would have preferred it if Valtonen had concentrated more on the technology theme – and it’s over long. That said, it’s a  novel that offers its readers a good deal to think about not least what sort of trail they’re leaving on the web.

Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson (transl. Thomas Teal): Short stories to delight in

Cover imageI have to confess that these are the first short stories I’ve read by Tove Jansson although I’ve very much enjoyed her novellas, given a new lease of lease of life by the lovely Sort of Books. I’ve harboured a fondness for them since their publicist sent me a copy of The Moomins and the Great Flood on hearing that H’s elderly aunt was a huge Jansson fan back in 2012. She was delighted to share it with her grandchildren and I’m sure would have been very pleased to hear of a clutch of newly translated short stories.

Comprising thirteen pieces, Jansson’s collection opens snappily with the titular ‘Letters from Klara’ which ranges from punchy advice on ageing to a consoling letter to a goddaughter on the loss of her ancient cat, all delivered in a jaunty no-nonsense tone. There should be something to please all Jansson fans in the stories that follow but rather than turn this review into a long list of synopses, I’ll mention just a few favourites. In ‘Party Games’ a class reunion ends surprisingly amicably after a revealing parlour game rakes up old memories and resentments. A desperate and argumentative young man strides into an elderly couple’s retreat, taking shelter from a summer storm, and finds himself calmed in ‘Pirate Rum’. The vignettes from a child’s diary offer snapshots of summer, solitary adventures and learning to paint in ‘About Summer’. In ‘My Friend Karin’ – one of the longer stories which range from a few pages to over twenty – a woman looks back at the conflict between her own beliefs and those of her deeply religious family through her friendship with her beloved cousin who sees God in everything.

The stories in this collection range from bright summer recollections to darker, almost fairy tale-like pieces – alone in a foreign city, a young man finds himself painting the phantoms which haunt his father; an enigmatic young woman has a way of helping people towards their hidden desires using unconventional methods. There’s often a thread of humour running through them: ‘Mama, you’re a snob.’ says a daughter chidingly only to receive the reply ‘So are you, thank goodness, though you’re still in the early stages’. Deftly translated by Thomas Teal, Jansson’s writing is clean, crisp and fresh. She excels at word pictures, simple yet vivid, and her characters are astutely drawn. This is an insightful, perceptive collection – sometimes playful, sometimes dark but always pleasing.

I’m sure Jansson fans with a sharp eye on the UK TV schedules will have spotted BBC Scotland’s documentary on her life, repeated a year or so ago, but for those of you who haven’t yet seen it here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYgC0nKyF0g. It’s a wonderful film, both uplifting and moving – Letters from Klara has set me up nicely for a third viewing.

The Winter War by Philip Teir (transl. Tiina Nunnally): Love, life and divorce in Helsinki

Cover imageI’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.