The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah // Peirene Press, February 2012

The blurb on my copy of The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg reads that it is “a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland”. I do not think there is a better way to describe this novella. Telling the story of two brothers (Erik and Henrik) who fought on opposite sides of the war between Sweden and Russia, this historical novella set in Finland, 1809, chronicles the brothers return to their farm and their fight for dominance.

It is hard to explain exactly how many plot twists can be packed into a book of 122 pages, while also managing to evoke such an atmospheric setting. Through the use of multiple narrators the reader learns about the multiple perspectives to the distorted relationship between the brothers and the other members of the family living on the farm. I especially felt for the mother of the brothers, and the wife of Erik. All in all, the characters aren’t necessarily likeable. Instead, all of them are faulty to some extent, which makes them more real, but also harder to get along with as a reader from time to time. This doesn’t work against Sahlberg, and I admire how he managed to give the reader the feeling that you know all characters individually.

What I loved about The Brothers was its atmosphere, its manner of evoking moods and settings in the mind of the reader. The story has a distinct Finnish feel to it, which I know sounds like cultural essentialism, but I simply cannot find another way to express the appeal of the book. Let me try to explain. The book made me feel incredibly sentimental, which is strange given the dark and unfriendly atmosphere prevalent at the farm. The reason for my sentimentality is that it reminded me of two Finnish persons I became friends with during my stay in Sweden. It wasn’t just the style of the writing that reminded me of them, although the style was incredible: sparse prose, but very effective. And, in my opinion, the translators did a great job in retaining a sense of the original language. No, it was not just the language, it was the Finnish girl I met in particular, who I kept picturing while reading the book. She used to talk about Finland’s past, of the country belonging to Sweden and Russia for long periods, of how she felt it still affected them now. She used to tell me stories, all with a certain darkness or tragedy to them, but with irony as well. And her descriptions of the Finnish winter landscape, as something beautiful but haunting, as something beyond the world you usually see.. All of these things returned to me while reading The Brothers. I am not saying that this defines Finland, or Finnish storytelling, but reading this novella made me glow and love and long to talk to my Finnish friends again, and therefore, I couldn’t help but love Peirene Press’ latest addition to their line of novellas.

Other Opinions: Desperate Reader, The Worm Hole, Louise Reviews, This Book and I Could be Friends, Caribousmom, Our Book Reviews Online, Tony’s Reading List.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

11 responses to “The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

  1. I’m curious that you found it so very Finnish because I found it very universal – in both story and setting. The opening particularly struck me as being Western-like with images of a gun-slinger walking into town. Full review here
    I must admit to a rather limited knowledge of Finland though – it being limited to rallying and rally drivers.

  2. I really enjoy reading Scandinavian writers and coming across this book on your blog is so nice! Especially because you mention that it seemed quite Finnish (although Mary, above says it’s not). One to try for myself!

  3. How interesting! I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a Finnish author before, or even set in Finland. Time to remedy that!

  4. I’m glad to read your insider information, because I read the book thinking (and hoping) that this was indeed reflective of Finnish literature in general, because it is so good. Though I never actually thought of how much I liked/disliked the characters, which is very weird really, yet I agree that none of them particularly recommended themselves. Such a good book! I want to read more of Sahlberg’s work in future, if I can.

  5. I pleased you said it felt really finnish I got that but haven’t met anyone from there but it felt similar to the other finnish books I ve read ,I love the changing voices giving different views as they go ,all the best stu

  6. I have heard some good things about this book, and the elements that you mention along with your reactions to them make me very curious about trying this book for myself. I think it’s so cool that this book evoked memories and feelings about long lost friends. Great review today!

  7. Just posted on this myself. It’s not my favourite Peirene, but it is very enjoyable and easy to read (almost a one-sitting book!).

  8. I’ve yet to read one of Pereine Press’ offerings; they all look so interesting, but I just haven’t gotten to them yet. Your thoughts on this one remind me that I should mend my errant ways!

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