At the Edge of Light by Maria Peura, trans. David Hackston

Paul Binding
Monday 03 September 2007 12:53
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"Some people sensed death, ran up to the gates, jumped on its back and rode away without saying goodbye." So reflects Katrina, this novel's narrator, as she recaptures her life at ages 12 and 13. This is when the expanding body and the advent of sexual capability paradoxically demand the recognition of death, a process in which fear and fascination alarmingly fuse – sometimes with destructive consequences.

Katrina becomes obsessed by sudden or violent exits from existence, especially suicides, in her northern Finland community. Take the case of the brothers Pekka and Erkki. Pekka travelled to Helsinki and installed himself fatally on a tram-line. Next Erkki journeyed south to see where his brother had died, but fell to his own death from the train. For Katrina and her friends – Kari, the fox-eyed boy, Pirta, the girl closest to her – anticipation of the frightening but inevitable is the supreme challenge. "Pirta wanted to slit her wrists open, eat poisonous mushrooms or blow her brains out with a shotgun. I wanted to drown myself."

The setting is Pello, just north of the Arctic Circle, cut through by river, railway line, the Finland-Sweden border and the village of Ruuhijärvi. Maria Peura conveys her places' actuality through artful details, such as the kind of house "built the traditional way, logs spaced slightly apart to let the air in. Happiness trickled away easily between the logs." Here is no sociological picture of a neighbourhood, although its isolation, folk beliefs and inclement winters shape both the experiences recounted and their psychological impact.

Instead, we focus on the stressful evolution of a workable personality and the body that must foster it. This evolution has its counterpart in declines and growths in the mighty natural world, which supplies at time terrifying, at times helpful symbols. We are in the late Seventies, but all we hear of the period are the Sex Pistols and The Exorcist, strong contributions to the imagination of its young.

This is a novel that partakes, in its sequence of short, concentrated chapters, of another genre, lyric poetry – a kinship beautifully brought out by David Hackston's resourceful translation. Kristina chooses to retain her earlier conflations of fantasy and painful reality. Was her dad an oversexed, dog-thrashing bully? Or a town councillor with a conscience, keen on stimulating his daughter's love of reading? For Katrina he was both.

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