New York: Other Press, c2012.
This was the first work I've read by Riikka Pulkkinen, thanks to Net Galley. It's available now in hard copy via Other Press if you are interested in picking up a copy yourself -- I love the cover design which was similar to the one I've used for this post. The magenta colour, the dress....very evocative of the tale. The particular cover I'm showing is the Australian version, and I really liked how they used a handwriting font for the title and author. I think it ties in well with the search for truth from the past, with dresses and documents so important to various discoveries.
Pulkkinen is a Finnish writer, and this novel is set primarily in Finland, with characters who are fully aware of political upheavals in Europe, and travel to France to catch some of the 60's spirit. The story moves back and forth in time, from the current day perspective of Anna, a young woman, to that of her grandparents when they were in their prime. Her grandfather, an artist, had a clichéd affair with Eeva, his daughter's nanny many years ago -- the repercussions of which are now being stirred up again, as her grandmother Elsa is dying of cancer and tells Anna about it.
The story explores relationships past and present, between people now far distant from one another and between people at different ages. For example, much is made of Anna's relationship with her grandfather and their habit when Anna was quite young of travelling on city buses and making up stories about the other passengers. She wonders if this kind of easy communication is possible any longer now that she is a woman with concerns and preoccupations of her own; she is absorbed by her own suffering and unable to retain that sense of connection with her grandfather. As she discovers more about his past she is able to feel more of an adult understanding between them. The question of how much the family members all know and yet don't know about each other is raised poetically:
Relationships between people are like dense forests. Or maybe it’s the people themselves who are forests, trail after trail opening up within them, trails that are kept hidden from others, opening only by chance to those who happen upon them.Despite the fact that this novel is about betrayal, death, depression, sadness, loss and much more, it is not a dark story. It feels spacious, open and yet complex... it shifts between time periods seamlessly, and draws the connections between people with a sure hand. It's a family saga, but leans more toward the story of the past than the current day one. The characters from the 60's -- Elsa, her husband Martti, Eeva -- are complex and their stories are finely detailed. The current day family is not so complete, with most of the attention going to Anna, with her competent and efficient sister's presence fading as the story goes on.
Something that I've noticed about many multigenerational sagas is that the middle generation gets short shrift. Anna's mother and Elsa's daughter, Elenoora, is a bit of a mystery. Information both about her reaction to the revelation of the affair, and the memories she's repressed about Eeva, is a little scant for my taste... I would have liked to dig into her feelings a little more. She was very reserved in her relationships with her parents and her children, and her interior landscape never fully came to life for me.
In any case, I did find this a good read, though it took me a little while to get into it. It began slowly, but was so full of gorgeous depictions of Finland and of the dreamy state of mind that Eeva existed within that I really did find it absorbing. It gave me a picture of a tangled and dark emotional dilemma, even while the Finnish setting seemed saturated with light, something I didn't really associate with Finland. The language was also very quotable.
At various points in the story, different characters claim to know what is true:
True rebellion is enjoying your existence no matter the circumstances.
Art turns empty when it's only about one truth. That's what I think. It's best to keep art open to the struggle between different points of view.
But I still believe, even now, that true revolutions last a lifetime -- they're always quiet, and they happen when no one's looking.
Anna herself is searching desperately for some kind of truth to guide her way out of depressive sorrow. She's looking for certainties about the past and about how to live now. But in her search she reflects on a child's perception of life, and how this may be the ultimate experience of possible truth:
A child's reality is made of dreams and play. A lie can weave into the mix imperceptibly. Or maybe that was what reality was like for people in general. Dreams, play, lies.
Iris on Books says that "Pulkkinen’s style is beautiful and thoughtful, and she spends quite a lot of time featuring detailed contemplations on life through the eyes of several characters."
Teresa at Shelf Love states that "In poetic, but not fussy prose, Pulkkinen captures the way family members are deeply intimate, knowing each other inside and out, able to recognize the moles on each other’s bodies and the particular feeling of a hand, but also entirely independent, even sometimes strangers to each other."
Mary states "The author takes the novel beyond the specifics of this family and into the universal by including many aphorisms and sometimes ponderous insights throughout the novel."