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The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles, By Roy Jacobsen, trans. Don Bartlett & Don Shaw

A village idiot's fight for survival while caught in the crossfire at -40C

Tone Sutterud
Thursday 14 February 2008 01:00 GMT

This poetic little novel tells the intriguing story of the Winter War when, three months after Hitler's invasion of Poland, Russia attacked Finland. The tale is set in the small town of Suomussalmi, where, in December 1939, 1,500 Finns defeated 50,000 Russian soldiers. Here, the Russians found their own scaled-down Stalingrad, in reverse.

The Finns desert the town, implementing a scorched-earth policy, but one man stays. Timo is known as "the village idiot", but as the town's chief logger he possesses a profound knowledge of how to survive in the northern Finnish winter. In temperatures down to -40C, the cold becomes an entity in itself, a tangible presence like "an impenetrable wall of shattered glass".

Jacobsen draws on his own experience of extreme cold in the north of Norway. "I know what the cold can do to a human being," he says. "You get scared and filled with awe." And Timo is "a master of frost", with qualities Jacobsen has seen in people such as North Sea fishermen.

The "idiot" becomes vital to the besieging Russians. He is put in charge of a motley crew of men who supply the troops with wood, which they have to go out and chop under the constant threat of fire from Finnish troops. His little band of loggers depend on him for their survival, but their weakness is what makes Timo strong; without them, he would have perished, too. The lines between the hero and the coward become blurred, just as the significance of national borders fades in the face of common human kindness.

In his native Norway, Jacobsen is known as a very versatile writer, as critically acclaimed as he is accessible and popular. Out of his 11 novels, two have been nominated for the Nordic Council's Literature Prize: The Conquerors in 1991 and Frost in 2003.

An inventive wordsmith and a great storyteller, he never sacrifices substance for style. His research is meticulous; he knows when to hold back and let the unspoken speak for itself, the hallmark of an author so familiar with his subject that he knows precisely where to let the reader fill in the gaps. As he often places his characters in the midst of historical events and social change, the reader feels more emotionally involved than a mere observer would: The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles is a gem of a novel.

John Murray, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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