Schildts förlag, 2010. ISBN: 9789515020048
Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2011:1
The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union (1939-1940) is the stuff of myth and cliché. Two aspects of this war are, however, often neglected: the complex geopolitical background, and the details of everyday life. Carola Sandbacka’s novel focuses principally on the latter. The novel is set in the manor house of Lahdelma in Eastern Finland, in the days when there were still pockets of Swedish-speaking landowners. Two intermarried families live in the same area in a kind of love-hate relationship: the rather refined Edelwings and the more down-to-earth Bengs family. The central character is the matriarchal Marietta and we read of her dealings with her daughters and others. Karl Johan Bengs is the son of Gunnar and Sigrid Bengs, and is married to Lillemor Edelwing, Marietta’s daughter, thus binding the families together. But soon he is off to the front and sending letters back to his family, hoping desperately that he will see them again. The reader, while given the political background to the war, is also given to understand the importance of warm socks and food parcels. There is paradoxically ghostly presence: Elisa, a young woman from our epoch and hence a couple of generations down the line, who is going through the many papers found at Lahdelma Manor and trying to piece together the period around 1940. Her thoughts are described in separate, italicised sections of the book. The first part of the novel focuses a great deal on the feelings and worries of these country people as war is looming. Interestingly, Sandbacka highlights everyday activities and events that were bound to continue, even when the menfolk were away fighting the enemy in the Karelian Naze, then still a region of Finland. The narrative then moves on to mobilisation, war and the ultimate peace treaty, in which Finland lost about a tenth of its territory to the Soviet Union, including the former Hanseatic city of Viborg. While the war forms a background, the reader is enveloped in many of the aspects of running the household economy, bringing up of babies and children, making food, furnishing rooms, secret trysts and love affairs and other parts of real life that were almost always left to the womenfolk when the men were at war. It is an interesting feature of the language that in those days the servants and tradesmen were almost always speakers of Finnish, a fact which Sandbacka has subtly emphasised with occasional short dialogue phrases in the Finnish language. The symbiosis of the Finnish and Swedish languages is an important part of Finland’s social history. Aspects specific to the society of Finland also occur, such as Lillajula celebration of Christmas in early December. One change brought about by the war is that soldiers from both language groups and all social classes mixed in a way that had only rareloccurred in peacetime. So, during the fighting at the front, a fisherman or farmer from Swedish-dominated Österbotten would not only meet people from the Helsinki upper classes, but would also be obliged to mix morthan usual with Finnish-speakers. The concerns of this novel echo those of a number of Finnish-language authors, especially Sirpa Kähkönen, who describes life in the east of Finland during this same war.