Söderströms, 2006. ISBN: 9789515224026
Reviewed by Teresia Quinn in SBR 2007:1
In 2006 Kjell Westö’s epic new novel Där vi en gång gått was awarded The Finlandia Prize, and it is not difficult to see why. This wonderful book spans the early twentieth century as far as 1939 and is set in a volatile period of Finland's history. In common with most of Westö’s work, the story mainly takes place in Helsingfors (Helsinki).The author effortlessly paints a portrait of a changing and growing capital, and weaves the lives of his characters into the past of a newly independent, uncertain Finland. The principal characters are from the Swedish-speaking minority, as is Westö himself, which gives an unusual and interesting point to the book.The language issue is not central to the story; instead he explores the class system and the social barriers that existed so strongly before the Second World War. He never takes sides, although the story focuses mainly on the middle/upper classes. As usual,Westö has researched his story with impeccable attention to detail. His language is perfectly suited to the time, as the rather oldfashioned title suggests, and his use of slang and dialect feels right and unforced. I feel that Westö seems to assume his readers know the history of Finland. He seldom explains background to events and he only skims over the independence from Russia in 1917. He does describe the Finnish civil war in detail, which is undoubtedly very interesting, but the political climate at the time may be confusing to someone unfamiliar with it. Helsingfors with all its place names is lovingly described, but again the names are thrown in as if to a home audience, with no map to help someone alien to the city. Westö has written his novel for his own people, for us to understand our grandparents’ generation and he has given life to a time gone past; to people who for many exist only as a portrait on a wall, or as a distant memory of someone elderly in our childhoods. Där vi en gång gått has, however, much more than history to give the reader. The introduction of jazz in the early 1920s is wonderfully portrayed; the way the new music was devoured by the young middle and upper classes wasting time in fashionable restaurants, desperate to become acquainted with the exotic American musicians, just like any groupie of today. Prohibition plays a large role as well, showing what we all know, namely that drinking was rife everywhere in that time. I found Westö’s description of the increasingly common motorcar very interesting; he goes into some detail about brand names for example. We follow the main characters from the time they leave school, through the Civil War in 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War. The Civil War is a cruel and brutal conflict fought between the right wing “whites” and the left wing “reds”. At opposite ends we find fascists and communists, with most of the novel’s characters somewhere in the middle. Because of the extremists, some horrifying scenes occur which permanently ruin the lives of many of the people in the story. One of them, a young man called Eccu, who is on the winning side of the “whites”, can never let go of the deeds he was made to witness and be part of and he becomes a hopeless alcoholic, losing his family and home in the process. On the other side, a young “red” working class lad called Allu gives up all hope of becoming a professional footballer, through his inability to forget how wrongly his judicious father was treated after the war. The decadent lives of the upper classes are shown through the eyes of Lucie, a wealthy aristocrat who rebels against the strait-laced life of her youth. As an adult she leads a life of affairs, fast cars and spending cash, yet she remains fiercely loyal to her friends and ends up losing her heart to Allu, who is so totally unsuitable; the social barrier is just too wide for them to bridge. Westö has the ability to make his characters real, and though many are so impossible, and their lives so fraught, you want them to be happy in the end. He also has such obvious love for Helsingfors that one cannot fail to be swept away. Westö quite rightly won the 2006 Finlandia Prize for this novel. It is in my opinion his finest work and places him firmly on the map of successful, popular modern authors.