It was Finland, it was the 1950’s but on our farm it could have been the Iron Age.

The unnamed narrator is a young girl, aged 4, when the novel starts; 6 when it ends. She lives in poverty, in post-war Finland, a country crippled by the reparations it was paying Russia for its part in the Continuation War of 1941-1944. Her father, a veteran of that war, is embittered, suffering most likely from PTSD, which manifests itself in the beatings he habitually administers to his wife and his children. He’s not the only one who is angry. So is his mother who hates him. A bit of a problem, when he is counting on inheriting the farm that she owns ….

However, this is not to be. Their relationship is volatile and eventually she ejects him (and the family) from the farm. He becomes an itinerant worker, forced eventually through the bad luck that follows him to emigrate to Sweden. Where the misery of living in such close confinement with a belt-happy father is replaced by misery of an altogether different kind.

There’s the culture shock of moving to Sweden, a liberal country that had not seen war for over 100 years, and the switch from rural life to existence as unwelcome immigrants in urban Stockholm. How could their hosts ever understand these Finns with their ugly language and darkness in the core of their hearts? How could the Finns in return lighten-up?

But we bought our war with us. The shrapnel that had gone into Father’s legs, in 1944 in the painful retreat when the war was lost, had somehow worked its way into his children. Each of us carried a shard of that iron in our hearts. We would never be at peace. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.

Coping mechanisms in such situations are de rigueur, and our narrator retreats into silence, imagination, literature and folklore. While in Finland she passes on local tales such as the recommendation to cut down pines that are too close to the house to prevent depression in married women. In Sweden she actively immerses herself into fairy tale and legend to escape the reality of life. This fusion with the joys of literature together with the cartoon-like illustrations of the author’s niece brightens the darkness inherent in this story. Yet there is a recognition that literature can only do so much: in the final scene, after another painful encounter with a schoolteacher, our narrator daydreams of being a little mermaid swimming in the peaceful underwater world, only to return to reality to find she has no tail.

Such a powerful story, shedding a light on hitherto unknown aspects of European history. Although, given how I love an illustrated novel (novella really as The Iron Age is only 119 pages long with an abundance of full-page illustrations), I wasn’t as bowled over as others have been. Perhaps it was the knowingness of the narrator, supposedly a very young girl. Though in fairness, the story is written in retrospect with a liberal dose of hindsight. So I shouldn’t question the biting acuity of observations like this:

Of the bitterness in her parent’s marriage:

Father was always telling mother to shut up. He had married her for her good looks and plucky attitude. Then he set to trying his damnedest to destroy both the looks and the attitude.

Yet I do, because of the mismatch between the maturity of the comment and the simplicity in which the story is told.