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The Brothers – Book Review

Nowadays, a woman’s honour is neither here not there, if it ever was. When there are no men of honour, there can be no women of honour. Men charge round in a woman’s life like mad bulls, and the wisest thing to do would be to sit quietly in a dimly lit corner. But what can you do when there is blood in your veins? That blood will surge and make its demand. And then you have a thirst that is not quenched by drinking. – from The Brothers, page 23 –

The Finnish war, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire from the winter of 1808 until the autumn of 1809, has come to its conclusion and Henrik, once a soldier fighting for Russia, has now come home to the family farm in Finland. He comes in the night, leaving footprints in the snow, and no one is happy to see him. Henrik’s brother, Erik, fought with the Swedes during the war. He also married Anna, a woman who first turned Henrik’s head. There are old grudges and family secrets. The brothers’ mother worries about what will come of things, and she harbors her own dark secret.

I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible. Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies. – from The Brothers, page 46 –

There are other characters, too, in this story of betrayal and family saga – the farmhand who is observant and smart, the housemaid who may be more than what she seems, and a cousin named Mauri who bides his time and waits for opportunity to turn his life around. The brothers, Henrik and Erik, have a turbulent history which informs the novella with a brittle tension as the other characters weave through the narrative like dancers on a stage.

The Brothers is a multi-layered and rich piece of literature where pieces of the characters lives come together like an intricate puzzle. As the story unfolds, there is an undercurrent of violence and a sense of apprehension begins to build. Asko Sahlberg shifts the narrative back and forth between the different and unique voices of the characters – a technique which allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly has happened between these people who are mostly unlikeable and damaged. Many pieces of the story are introduced by one character, and then further elaborated by another. Although this might seem confusing, I found it to be highly effective in maintaining the pace of the novella.

Many historical novels need hundreds of pages to do what Sahlberg does in a novella with just over one hundred pages. With writing which is tight, taut, and artfully drawn, Sahlberg reels the reader into a family drama set against the backdrop of post-war Finland in the dead of winter.

I read this book in just over two hours, eagerly turning the pages to unravel this family’s secrets. The novella is a translation from the Finnish, and it is beautifully rendered.

This latest installment from Peirene Press is sure to delight readers who enjoy works in translation, but it will also appeal to those who love well-written literary fiction. Sahlberg is considered one of the best writers to have come out of Finland, and it is easy to see why. Based on its size The Brothers might seem like a nibble of literature, but it will surprise readers with its enormous depth and skillfully drawn characters.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

10 Comments

  1. February 21, 2012    

    Oh, I love it when a book is compact, but manages to encapsulate all of the richness and drama of a longer story into something almost tiny. It sounds like this was a great read, and I am very curious about it. Thanks for the excellent and very thoughtful review. It was wonderful!

    • February 25, 2012    

      Heather: This is an awesome book – I think you’ll love it! At least i hope you do!

  2. holly holly
    February 23, 2012    

    Great book, great review, I absolutely loved it, a show that also influences me in what I read is The book report, with host Elaine Charles, go have a listen!

    • February 25, 2012    

      Holly: Thank you! I will have to check out the book report – have never heard of it before.

  3. February 23, 2012    

    OMG, I’ve never heard of this press and I would love to check out all of their books after this glowing review. I love books like this that have deep family secrets and the well done narrative that keeps your turning the pages — and as a novella, each word must be selected for its power to convey so much in so little space.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    • February 25, 2012    

      Serena, I can’t believe you haven’t discovered Peirene yet! Their books are fabulous – all less than 200 pages, in translation, and often very poetic. You’ll love this publisher’s books!

      • February 27, 2012    

        It probably has to do with which blogs they pay attention too and I’m not off looking for new contacts these days given my current time constraints with reading and working…etc. plus the little wiggly one.

        • February 27, 2012    

          That makes sense, Serena!

  4. March 2, 2012    

    I loved this book. You’re right about the undercurrent of violence – I kept thinking something was going to explode!

    • March 2, 2012    

      El Fay: Your review of this one was terrific…such a wonderful book in so few pages. The tension, I thought, was perfectly crafted.

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