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.
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