Reviewed by Kate Lambert in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Fiction
‘My story begins on Saturday, 28 August 1948 at 07.06’, writes the anonymous narrator, a scarred, one-eyed, one-legged war veteran who mans the level crossing in a small town on Finland’s west coast. The book, however, begins a chapter earlier with the words: ‘The night before Ulla-Maj Holm, retired school director and former Member of the Finnish Parliament for the Swedish People’s Party in the constituency of Vaasa north, vanished without trace from the Norrvalla Rehab Centre, she dreamed about the first night of a play that never took place’. It is an intriguing start, the dream a prelude and simultaneously a flashback sixty years to the town amateur dramatic society’s performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters on 13 November 1948. The three sisters – Ulla-Maj Norrgrann, the serious schoolteacher (Olga); lively Maggi Boström, her father a manager at the tobacco factory (Masha); and talented actress Iris Myllymäki, daughter of ‘Shit-Kalle’ who empties the town latrines (Irina) – are left standing on stage waiting for Valborg Fellman as Natasha, who can’t be found, and for a curtain that never goes up.
This non-event is central to the narrative. Everything else clusters around it in concentric circles that are interlinked despite class divisions, as secrets are revealed, or hinted at, or remain concealed. Through the lives of the three women, Lars Sund describes small-town life in predominantly Swedish-speaking Ostrobothnia after the war and the history of Finland in the twentieth century. The smell of the tobacco factory and the pulp mill are ever-present as the trains constantly pass the level crossing. Jumping from one character to the next, forwards and backwards in time, the stories of the ‘three sisters’ and their families past, present and future span Finnish independence, the Civil War, class struggle, Communism, Fascism, emigration to America, the Winter War and post-war politics, with a cameo role, even, for future President Urho Kekkonen.
Our unnamed narrator is given a fountain pen by the town’s poet, teacher Victor Sund, who, over Saturday afternoon coffee, encourages him in his desire to write. They watch the characters as they pass, as if they too were characters in a play. At one point the narrator is interrupted by a protest from an adult Maggi – ‘Thank you for describing my bedroom in such exhaustive detail... I have the right to some privacy here!’ – How much is the narrator imagining, with the help of the visiting crow who exchanges gossip for crusts? Whose story is this? How much can we ever truly know?
The narrator reads Dickens, and tells us he is not attempting to compete with Thomas Mann. Nor, despite the flashbacks, the foreshadowing, the convoluted epic timespan, incredibly detailed descriptions and sudden digressions, not to mention a dogged police inspector determined to uncover the truth, is he Victor Hugo. But this is a novel on the same kind of scale. Its key event is a death, but it is not a crime novel, and readers expecting the mysteries to be resolved might feel short-changed. There may be an element of Finnish restraint in its characterisation – or perhaps the cast of characters is so large that allowing any one of them too much emotional depth would unbalance the whole. Or perhaps our job is merely to observe the characters, as the theatre spotlight focuses on one after the other, and work out for ourselves what lies hidden beneath the surface.
Intended as the first part of a trilogy, the book ends abruptly in 1968 when the level-crossing guard retires, leaving the reader on tenterhooks to read volume two and find out what happens next in the lives of its characters, and what led up to the event forty years earlier with which the book began.