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Själarnas ö Johanna Holmström, Själarnas ö (Island of Souls)

Förlaget, Finland,  2017.

Reviewed by Emma Naismith in SBR 2018:1

Review Section: Fiction

It is an early October night in 1891, in the Finnish city of Åbo (Turku), when Kristina Andersson drowns her two children in the Aura River. Afterwards she is sent to an asylum for ‘incurably insane’ women on Själö, an island in the Turku archipelago from which few return. Kristina spends her first years there unaware of her surroundings and her past. Her awakening is at first slow but she is gradually given more responsibilities. Erland Björkestam, a priest from her home town, moves to the archipelago with his family, and, knowing Kristina from childhood, is determined to see her become healthy and leave the island. However, the ghosts and histories of her life permeate everything she does, and she retreats inwards, spending the rest of her life in the asylum.

In 1934 Elli Curtén is admitted, determined to be one of the few who make it off the island. The second half of the book follows Elli’s months on Själö, under the care of nurse Sigrid Friman, and at the mercy of the medical system’s definitions of health and sickness. In one scene she asks Sigrid what another patient has done to be sent here. Sigrid answers, ‘The real world, the one outside, does not want to take her… She refused to obey. They beat her black and blue at the penitentiary but she still did not do what she was told, and they realised in the end that they would have to kill her or send her to hospital. So it was the hospital. And every time they try to discharge her she comes back. Out there… there is nobody who wants her.’ The central question of this book appears in this scene: who draws the line between madness and sanity?

The patient in question, Karin, eventually manages to leave the island, against a background of war and TB, and is reunited with Elli in the real world. Sigrid Friman is the link between Kristina and Elli, the old and new, those who leave and those who never will.

The stories in this book are spun from the lives of real people, gathered from the archives. One striking element is the meticulous recording of the women’s moods, bodily excretions, menstruation, weights, head circumferences, smell and sizes. The sum of these measurements determined the outcome of a woman’s life, and the clinical nature of Elli’s first encounter with the male doctor at the hospital is humiliating and emphasises the theme of powerlessness, gender and control over the body.

Countering this, the text switches between points of view, immersing the reader in the individual misery of each patient. This sometimes brings an overwhelming sense of sadness as you read. The book’s strength lies in these detailed accounts of women’s lives, the touches, smells and tastes, and the relationships within the hospital, an all-female household. The juxtaposition of this world with the distantly portrayed male characters, who determine the fate of these women, but barely enter the story themselves other than in individual episodes or memories, points up the theme of the book. These women have no power to interact with the male-dominated world that determines their fates, their bodies, their diagnoses and their choices.

As the novel spans almost a century and explores two of the patients’ lives in detail, it tends to fall into distinct sections, which, at certain points, pulls the story away from the details. One story is not finished before the next begins, vast gaps are filled in with a single sentence. For a reader who is absorbed in the archival detail, this structure is a little disconcerting. Nonetheless, it is a good representation of the fact that life goes on.

Finland-Swedish author Johanna Holmström is described in Dagens Nyheter as one of ‘the Nordic countries’ new storytellers’ and Svenska Dagbladet’s reviewer said of Själarnas ö that ‘this is what a real novel looks like’. Both reviews pinpoint her ability to create tension through her prose. This novel would appeal to an English-speaking audience, particularly as the issue of men’s power over women continues to be highly relevant.

Also by Johanna Holmström

  • Asfaltsänglar (Asphalt Angels). Reviewed by B.J. Epstein in SBR 2013:S.

Other reviews by Emma Naismith

Other reviews in SBR 2018:1

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