Peirene Press Readathon, No. 12: 'Small Epics' Discussion Post

Today we have our third and final Peirene Press readathon discussion post, of the 'Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets' series, which is made up of The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul and Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (for reviews, see the links at the bottom of the page.) 

For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other.

Here are mine and Sam's thoughts on the series:

L: Hi Sam, how are you? Have you enjoyed the 'Small Epics: Unravelling Secrets' series? Did you have a particular favourite?

S: Before we started the readalong, this was the series I was most anticipating and it hasn't disappointed. Although I enjoyed all three, The Brothers was my favourite. I loved the gothic, wintery setting and the atmosphere that crept into the story. It was the book that most transported me to another time and place (Finland) and the author kept me guessing with all the family secrets and twists and turns. As I love historical fiction, it probably isn't a surprise that I enjoyed this one so much! 

L: That's fab; for me, my favourite is a tie between The Brothers and The Murder of Halland - I loved them both! I agree with your thoughts on the beautiful atmosphere and unexpected plot line of The Brothers; I found it so completely immersive and evocative, and so wide in scope and meaning. Just thinking about it now, I feel chilly, and I can picture the enormous, war-like horse! I loved The Murder of Halland for different reasons: it really got under my skin. I loved the narration, the nature and complex ambiguity of the story and the way in which Bess, the main character, was allowed to be irrational, passive and downright exhausted for a lot of the story. It seemed to me to be a very enlightened and honest account of grief and it still crosses my mind often.

L: Do you think these three books deserve the title of 'Small Epics'? 

S: The Brothers and Sea of Ink were unquestionably epic, but The Murder of Halland doesn't seem as grand initially. But it is epic in terms of the journey the central character takes emotionally after the murder of her husband.

L: Yeah, I came to a similar conclusion: the fact that after reading The Murder of Halland I feel I have a better understanding of the experience of grief definitely pushes it into 'epic' territory, as that's quite a thing to achieve! It easy to see, with the scope of the novellas, and the way the specific stories speak of the world in general terms, why The Brothers and Sea of Ink come under the 'Small Epic' title. It's perhaps particularly clever, in fact, that the books are grouped in this to make us actually this about what an 'epic' really is.

L: Considering that they are linked as a thematic trio, did you see any similarities between them, or any common themes? Any differences, also? 

S: Tricky question! The settings and time periods are all very different. Sea of Ink and The Murder of Halland are both about individuals in difficult circumstances (political upheaval in China and a murder investigation) whereas The Brothers is more about how a family unit reacts to a difficult circumstance (war). But then The Murder of Halland and The Brothers are linked as they are concerned with family relationships and what family means to us.

L: That's true. I think another strong similarity is that they are all concerned with the true finding of self: The Brothers have to alter what they believe to be the truths about their lives radically, and Bess in Halland finds that she really didn't know her partner or her ex-husband at all, whilst getting to know her estranged daughter, who is a huge part of her self. And in Sea of Ink, Bada Shanren has a great number of different incarnations; so much so that he keeps changing his name! That exploration of truth, secrets and humanity felt like a common theme to me. As for differences....I can only think of superficial ones. 

L: Seeing as this is our final discussion post, how do the first three books, from Female Voices, appear in the context of the other six? And Male Dilemma? Do you see any similarities throughout all nine?

S: I've really enjoyed the readathon. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the first book in each series (Beside the Sea for 'Female Voices', Next World Novella for 'Male Dilemma' and The Brothers for 'Small Epics') the most, although I can't think of a logical reason for this! Aside from top quality writing, all the novellas deal mainly with the human condition and put you inside the head of a range of distinctive characters. I'm glad that I've read them all, especially some that I would never have picked up without the readalong.

L: That's so funny! I'd say my favourites have been The Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Stone in a Landslide, The Brothers and The Murder of Halland, so no particular patterns there :) Agreed on the huge mix of wildly interesting characters, and kudos to Peirene for placing so many unsympathetic and challenging ones in there too. Cheesy I know, but having read them all, I'll read everything they publish from now on as I trust them to pick good books for me!

It's been interesting in this last week to re-read Sea of Ink in the context of the other books, and in the right order, as I started with that one back in September. Now, I can see that Bada Shanren, whilst being Chinese, historical and based upon a real painter, has a huge amount in common with the most modern European literary creations, which I suppose is a reminder of the fact that people and what it means to be human rarely change. 

The reviews in our Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Peirene Discussion Post #1 - Female Voices: Inner Realities

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (mine) ¦ Sam's 
Peirene Discussion Post #2 - Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (mine)  ¦ (Sam's)
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (mine) ¦ (Sam's)


  1. Dear Lyndsay and Sam, a huge thank you from Peirene and me for this amazing Readathon. You will go down in history as Peirene's first readathon readers. For me as the publisher it was thrilling to follow you. I have a couple of questions:
    What was the most exciting feature of the Peirene books?
    What was the most difficult aspect of the Peirene books to get your head around?
    Was there a book that didn't really fit into Peirene?
    Having now read all the Peirene books, what are you looking forward to with the next 9 Peirene titles? Or a similar question: What are you expecting Peirene to deliver in the next three years?

    1. Dear Meike, you're welcome! We both had a wonderful time :) To answer to your questions, from my point of view at least:

      A really distinctive and likeable feature in my eyes was the length of them - I loved that if I had a couple of hours to kill I could read a book in its entirety, and in one go without breaks. That's pretty rare, and I found it enormously liberating. The most exciting aspect overall is a tie between that and the complex, exciting, innovative characters found within the books. I remember most of them like actual people I've met over the last few months, and still feel involved with a good number of them! I can't really think of a most difficult aspect.

      'Sea of Ink' stands out in my mind as a kind of anomalous one; possibly because I read it out of sequence with the others, but mostly because, although it's a European publication, it's set in China, so I suppose it's out on a geographical limb. The themes all fit with the others, but if I had to pick one, that would be it.

      I am excited about the next 9 Peirene titles and I will definitely read them all. And I expect Peirene to continue bringing me great stories, for the next 9 books, and beyond!

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