Found in Translation: ‘The Brothers’

This review of ‘The Brothers’ is the first in a review column run by our editor, focusing mainly upon fiction in translation. Reviews won’t be limited to current publications but will also cover classics, particularly Scandinavian fiction.

‘Nothing can move a man once he has seen someone trying to kill his own brother.’

Second only to Iceland in terms of number of books published per capita, Finland is fast gaining a reputation as a distinctly ‘literary’ nation, producer of thought-provoking and intense fiction. Asko Sahlberg’s The Brothers (trans. Emily & Fleur Jeremiah), a 122 page epic set in rural Finland, is no exception to this. It is 1809, and siblings Henrik and Erik have returned from fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War. Every page bristles with tension as unspoken family secrets clamour to reveal themselves in a dark kaleidoscope of cinematic prose.

The brevity of The Brothers is deceptive. It packs far more into its 122 pages than one would expect, with what is left unsaid taking up as much of the reader’s attention as the printed words. Published by Peirene Press, an independent publisher who produces ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’, The Brothers is the first in their ‘Small Epic’ series, and it certainly lives up to the title. I loved how the narrative was passed between the novel’s main characters to allow multiple perspectives upon the unfolding drama. Each personality is carefully crafted with a distinct voice, from icy Henrik to his practical mother whose first appearance reads, in its entirety:

            ‘The hens are laying well. I was wise enough to pay for a good breed. I should teach the new girl to bake.’

Sahlberg is economic with his words; his writing style blends into the landscape he evokes, the starkness of rural Finland captured brilliantly through these vignettes devoid of florid descriptive passages.

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His characters, also, seem to have a particular affinity with the landscape they inhabit. His descriptions from the Farmhand’s perspective are particularly noticeable; one of my favourite passages came with the increasingly wizened man taking chase after the young and agile brothers:

            ‘The path thuds, the moon casts fleeting shadows, snowy spruces twist and turn anxiously beside me … I lag further and further behind, I stumble, I nearly fall over, damn this old age.’

Animals, people, and landscape are intertwined as the story progresses, sharing a primal, elemental quality. This is set against the cream cakes and stiff dresses of the city, Turku – I particularly like books that leave me wondering what happens to the characters after the final page, and I was intrigued by what might happen to this family if removed from the landscape that seems to sustain them, if uprooted to the noise and lights of Turku filled with ‘the unkindness of busy people’.

If you enjoy atmospheric Scandinavian fiction, then this is a book for you. It may be short on murders when compared to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, but it has as much familial intrigue as the best Nordic Noir. The Brothers asks more questions than it does provide answers and the characters even seem to keep secrets from the reader, ensuring that even at the close the family still has an air of mystery about them. It’s an intriguing exploration of a family torn apart by secrets and rivalries, and well worth a read.

L. C. Broad

You can read an excerpt from ‘The Brothers’ on the Peirene website. ‘The Brothers’ is available from most bookstores, RRP £10.00.

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