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Ulla-Lena Lundberg, Marsipansoldaten (The Marzipan Soldier)

Bonniers,  2001. ISBN: 9100576638

Reviewed by Silvester Mazzarella in SBR 2003:1

This novel traces the fortunes of a Finland-Swedish family during the wars between Finland and the Soviet Union of 1939-40 and 1941-44. The emotional Leonard Kummel is head teacher of a village primary school not far from Helsingfors, though he longs for his native Åland Islands. His practical wife, Martha, helps in the school and does most of the work involved in running their home and bringing up their four children. Their three sons are of military age. Petter, training to be a pastor, is exempt from normal call-up and able to help at home, but Frej and Göran take a full and active part in the wars. Their sister Charlotte is still a child. Frej and Göran, the novel’s leading characters, are very different from one another. The younger, Göran, is universally popular; lively, outgoing and full of charm if not always to be relied on, a natural breaker of hearts. Frej, more introverted, lacks charisma but is admired as solid and responsible. War comes to reverse the family’s perception of these two in unexpected ways. The action takes us from the Finnish army’s initial push into Russian east Karelia with its irredentist dreams of a greater Finland, through Finland’s ill-starred attempt to strengthen her hand against the Soviet Union by a rash alliance with Hitler’s Germany, to her final desperate struggle in 1944 to remain independent even at the cost of losing a tenth of her territory. The author has said that her starting point was a collection of letters home from the front written by her father and his brothers during these traumatic years; she has owned and lived with these letters since she was sixteen. They have helped her understand that even during a time of deep crisis people may frequently be light-hearted, and none more so than the often high-spirited young men who make up the bulk of an army. She is brilliant on the paradoxes that affect daily life at such times; one small example: the declaration of war in 1939 and prospect of being bombed merely exhilarates 13-year-old Charlotte. When her school is suddenly closed all she can think of is that Providence has unexpectedly saved her from punishment for not having done a particular piece of homework. There are bigger paradoxes too, but to give away too much of the story would be to destroy the author’s extremely skilful use of suspense. Above all, this is a novel about the long-term effects of war on personalities and personal relationships. At the same time it is full of little insights, often humorous, such as when a Swedish-speaker realizes that the unsophisticated lover he has found himself in the Finnish-speaking area where he is stationed is not only a great emotional support to him, but expects him to make accurate use of all the fifteen case-endings of Finnish grammar even in bed.

Also by Ulla-Lena Lundberg

  • Is (Ice). Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2013:S.
  • Regn (Rain). Reviewed by Joan Tate in SBR 1998:1.

Other reviews by Silvester Mazzarella

Other reviews in SBR 2003:1

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