Finland may not quite be Viking or Scandi-noir territory but it’s close enough for ideas of brooding twilight and the darker side of the human soul to take a grip. Alas, Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s novel is mainly all sweetness and light. It is set among the Orland Islands, an archipelago between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea, just after the Second World War. It is set around the year of Lundberg’s birth there in 1947.
There is autobiography in it, and it does read a little like a memoir. Lundberg is also an ethnologist and recreates the time and community with absolute skill. The sense of place becomes a character in itself as we follow the arrival of the new young pastor, his wife and small child. Petter Kummel is instantly taken to the heart of the community and he takes them to his heart, falling in love with his church and remote island life. His practical wife Mona, a farmer’s daughter, revels in the challenge of working the windswept land and milking the cows – essential if they are to survive in the lean post-war years.
There are the odd references to the war and a trace of the blossoming Cold War too. The east and west villagers are in continual loggerheads, and the doctor has fled the Soviet Union. On the whole, though, the islands seem to be its own cocoon, the outside world intruding just enough to let it be known that it is dangerous – with the odd shipwrecked American “negro” washing up on the shore.
There is no doubting Lundberg’s craft as she immerses the reader in her world. It is beautifully written, paced and controlled. It’s all fine if you want rose-tinted memories from the late 1940s, thickly coated in wholesomeness: even the cold coming through the walls and floors seems romanticised. And in spite or because of the fact that this book has had praise heaped up on it and is a bestseller in Scandinavia – it is just a bit boring, especially the first half, which is a litany of cosy preparations of food and drink, page after page after page.
There is more drama in the second half, and the best kind, revolving around small issues of immense importance to its protagonists. It wouldn’t be an (almost) Scandi novel if there was not an least one unfortunate twist, but even this is just part of the process that reminds us that God – or nature (there is a pleasant dollop of paganism here) – is implacable and mighty.
There are those who will lap up this book, and rightly so because Lundberg achieves completely what she sets out to do. But don’t expect to be thrilled or excited.
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