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Mikaela Sundström, De vackra kusinerna (The Beautiful Cousins)

Söderströms,  2008. ISBN: 9789515225528

Reviewed by Željka Černok in SBR 2009:2

A few years ago I went on a literary treasure hunt to Finland, curious to see what Finland-Swedish literature has to offer and hoping to discover someone new, beyond established authors like Monika Fagerholm and Kjell Westö or literary giants like Edith Södergran. I supposed that with such a rich literary tradition and unique position ‘in between’ Sweden and Finland, there had to be something interesting happening and I was eager to find out what. After some initial emails and conversations with extremely helpful Maria Antas from the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) and an assortment of writers, publishers and friends, I realised that one name was mentioned by just about everybody: Mikaela Sundström.

Her debut in 1999, Dessa himlar kring oss städs (These Heavens Around Us Always), had even been nominated for the prestigious Finlandia Prize. I was interested to find out what was so special about this story of a girl who leaves rural Finland and moves to London, only to return home years later as a famous photographer, where she starts taking stock of her fame and marriage. I discovered that the unique thing about Mikaela Sundström is the style of her writing. She writes like there’s literally no tomorrow, rushing from scene to scene and character to character, all the time using a language that is vibrant, funny and ironic. It’s like meeting a gossipy neighbour after coming back to your home town, who wants to tell you everything about everybody, leaving you amused, confused and quite possibly, misinformed.

De vackra kusinerna is Mikaela Sundström’s third novel (she has also published two picture books) and she is staying true to her themes and her refreshing, bubbly style of writing. This is a story of two sisters and their father – an amateur actor, also an amateur cowboy. The sisters couldn’t be more different – Lia is a Goth who spends all her time with horses while Sanna is the practical one at the end of her studies and working in the legal firm of Marica Högman-Kivelä. Marica takes on a murder case that is impossible to win: a woman who woke up after a night of drinking to find her husband stabbed to death. She doesn’t remember anything but her mother, Anne-Maj, hires Marica as her defence lawyer. They lose the case and Anne-Maj vents all her anger on Sanna who realises that maybe she is not thick-skinned enough to become a lawyer. Meanwhile, her sister joins her father’s theatre group and turns out to be the self-assured one. Again this is Sundström’s territory – young people questioning their path in life and finding out that they are stronger or weaker than they thought, and that growing up doesn’t automatically mean one knows how to handle everything. This is a relatively simple story but its charm is in the characters: Tommi, also a trainee at the lawyer’s office and a possible object of Sanna’s desire, Marica’s husband whom Sanna doesn’t like; Marica herself, a fascinating and worldly woman Sanna looks up to; Anne-Maj, the unhappy mother who finds her strength in acting and ends up performing in the same play as Lia and her father. The only thing missing is some sort of closure at the end. On the other hand, maybe this is simply such a satisfactory read that you feel it should continue.

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