It’s becoming a habit. For the third year in a row, I’ve saved up a full series from Peirene Press to binge read over a long weekend. It gives me an opportunity to see how they play off each other and assess them as a series, and my view of series 5 is that it is the best yet. In each series so far, there’s always been one that didn’t gel with me. That’s not true here. Nor is that due to them being of a likeness because the books in this trio are as different as different can be.
Let’s start at the beginning.
White Hunger by Aki Ollikanen
Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
It is 1867, the second year of the last great famine in Finland, and the population is paying the price. It is estimated that 270,000 people died of starvation in Finland that year, and Ollikanen pitches us right into the midst of this suffering. Winter approaches with a farmer’s family fishing for food – the store cupboards are almost empty because the crop has failed. His marital life has been affected – his wife does not want one more mouth to feed. The next time we see them, he is dying of starvation and his wife, Marja is about to leave him to his fate and set out with the two children, Mataleena and Juno, to walk to St Petersburg in search of food. It’s a desperate action. The winter is harsh, the snow is knee deep in places, and they’re cold and hungry before the journey even begins. Nor are they the only ones facing such a trek.
Success depends on the ofttimes begrudging kindness of strangers, sharing the little they have for themselves, or giving them a lift to the next place of shelter. The gruel they are served becomes thinner, the bark content of the bread ever higher. The shelters they find – whether communal or private – are not always safe, particularly for Marja. Even well-meaning folk can do harm. (The stomachs of the starving cannot handle food in normal quantities.)
Contrasting with the experience of the rural migrants (can we call them that?) is that of the urban townsfolk. The difference is emphasised in the novella’s structure which alternates between Marja and her family and the urban scene. The townsfolk are not as badly affected, although life is far from easy for all, apart from the ruling classes. Attitudes to sex are more casual. In fact, so much so that Teo Renqvist earned my intense dislike for … well, that would be telling. Which was a bit unfortunate because I can’t give him any credit for his show of humanity at the end.
Returning to the structure. Ollikanen honours the victims of the famine, Marja, Mataleena and Juno by naming a book after each. For two, this means a book of memorial. For the third a book of hope. Spring arrives at the end of the longest winter. Add this to the language which is highly evocative whether describing landscape or the effects of hunger on the body, and it’s not hard to understand the Man Booker International Prize Longlisting.
The story has obvious contemporary political resonance – something that the IFFP judges valued, it seemed to me, above all else. It remains to be seen whether the MBI judges think likewise.
Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter
If a book lover ever needs a lightening of heart, this little gem is guaranteed to deliver.
When Marie-Constance G’s friend, Françoise suggested “Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”, my mind flew immediately to Scout’s successful foray into the same field in To Kill A Mockingbird. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, well …. and well again.
I don’t recall Peirene doing comedy before, but this is de-lic-ious. (Dear Nymph, give me more.)
Some mishaps are due to Marie-Constance’s naïvety, and others due to her “paragon” of a husband, who gives her free reign to behave as she will. And she behaves in some very dubious ways.
(I could sidetrack into a discussion as to whether indifference to one’s spouse is a virtue? But I don’t want to spoil the mood, so we’ll leave philosophy out of it.)
In addition to the farcical romp, this book delivered something entirely unexpected. Marie-Constance chooses to read from the French naturalists, and, because of the – shall we say – (mis)adventures that result from the power of this literature, I now have a curiosity to read them too.
Well, well … and well again.
The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons
Ragna sat on her stool and shone, she shone and glittered and tossed her hair, so thick, so long was it that she could plait it, gather it in a ponytail, roll it up and let it cascade down again in long, soft curls. I stared straight ahead, pretended she wasn’t there, didn’t take any notice of her lapping up my humiliation – Mum cutting and my tears falling at every strand of hair that gave way before the scissors.
Afterwards, I sneaked over to the mirror unseen, alone. …. Ragna appeared out of nowhere and stood beside me. We stared at each other for a long time …. Nothing was said, but both of us saw, what our reflections had to tell.
What do the reflections tell? Ragna, the healthy, pretty sister, is full of promise, but already showing a propensity for psychological cruelty. The standing at the mirror is designed to drive a point home. Look at me, I’m not like you. It’s true. The unnamed narrator, at the age of 7, has survived a serious childhood illness which has left her disabled and unable even to grow a healthy mane. She is now entirely dependent on her parents. When the parents die 12 years later, the duty of care falls on the 23-year old life-loving and man-loving Ragna and with she too loses her prospects. Living in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world, there are no other family members, no social care services to ease her burden, which she carries with increasing resentment and rage.
Ragna dutifully looks after her sister, but with bad grace, never resisting an opportunity to inflict further humiliation. The narrator has nothing to do all day, but read and devise ways of irritating the sister to pay her back in some small measure. As this cycle continues for over 30 years, it needs a stranger to break the pattern.
Enter Johan who moves into a long deserted house nearby. Broad and tall and with a stomach well outside the band of his trousers, he’s no catch but to the emotionally and sexually deprived Ragna, he is salvation! As their relationship develops, the narrator realises the threat to her existence. Of course, they want peace to enjoy each other. Of course, they’ll want to ship her off to a care home. Of course, she doesn’t want to leave the house she hasn’t been outside since her childhood. It is her world, her only world, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. So she mounts a campaign to thwart their every move.
Is this a miscalculation?
This is an intense, bitter and twisted tale, infused with acts of breathe-taking cruelty. Here are three people in a situation designed to bring out the worst in each other. And yet, despite doubting the reliability of the narrator (is she telling us everything – particularly about her own acts of attrition), it is possible, if not always easy, to sympathise with everyone. Abuse notwithstandig. Life is complicated like that sometimes.
I think that The Looking-Glass Sisters may be my favourite Peirene. (Although I’ll have to re-read Next World Novella just to make sure.)