Schildts & Söderströms, 2012.
Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2013:S
Review Section: Fiction
Peter Sandström has previously published two collections of short stories and one novel. This latest collection of short stories, awarded the Yle literary prize, comprises a series of portraits set in the 1950s-80s, and many of the characters are Finnish parents still suffering from the after-effects of the wars with Russia, or the next generation reared by such parents. In ‘Son’, the boy’s father has retreated to his greenhouse where he drinks to suppress his guilt at the grief he caused dependents of soldiers he killed. He has a noose hanging ready to hang himself, and begs the local Finnish-Soviet Society to send on his letter of apology. In other stories the narrator’s father never returned. The mother works hard and sees that her son is well looked after, but a sense of loss pervades these homes. The narrator leaves Österbotten county for the more urbanised Åbo; he is rarely happy there but a return to the childhood home makes alienation even more marked.
This loss often warps emotional development. In ‘Ronnie’, a young woman shows she is willing but the narrator admits ‘I could have loved her, but I didn’t know what it felt like to love someone’. Even affection between parents and children avoids physical contact: feelings are expressed through deeds – mothers cooking, ironing and packing clothes. Difficulties in sexual orientation range from transvestism to a battered female partner.
The stories distinguish between attitudes in small communities and in cities, but are never censorious. Some unimaginative characters are contented, and the tipplers who congregate to ‘drink by lunch time’ are tolerated. Imaginative characters can become authors, but creation also finds other outlets. The father in ‘Son’ finds expression in his plants, while the mother in ‘Till dig som färdas’ (To You Who Travel) weaves into her rugs ‘a language full of colours, thick and even, and her own’.
Sandström’s language, with occasional dialect, is realistic, even brutal on occasion. References to an abattoir, the removal of a cancerous breast, menstruation are unflinching. Humans are likened to animals, but think about life and death. Through his characters, for whom one discerns an underlying empathy, Sandström treats universal themes: relations between father and son; mother and son; father and daughter; friends; man and woman, and indeed the human condition – all skilfully encompassed in the six compact stories that make up this thought-provoking book.