Peirene Press Readathon, No. 9: 'The Brothers' by Asko Sahlberg

Happy new year everyone! I hope you all had a nice restful break and are looking forward to what 2013 will bring. I am, for sure, although my first day back at work, which was today, has left me sleepy and yearning for Christmas again...

Anyhoo, back to the ol' routine, and regular readers will know that for the last eight Thursdays this has meant a post on mine and Sam's epic Peirene Press Readathon, and today is no exception! During this readathon we are reading all nine (actually now ten) books published by Peirene Press to date, plus reviewing the three-book-series, into which the books are arranged, as a whole every fourth week. Today's book is The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, which is the first book in the 'Small Epic' series.

This novella focuses on one house in the wilds of Finland in 1809, shortly after the end of Swedish-Russian conflict over territory in Finland in which the two brothers of the title, Erik and Henrik, fought on different sides. Now Henrik, who fought for enemy Russia is back at the house, where Erik, his wife Anna, their mother, the Old Mistress, their cousin Mauri, a maid and a farmhand reside and, as you might imagine, tensions simmer and boil over, secrets are revealed, grudges are honoured and it is very,very isolated, snowy and cold.  The family initially reminded me of the Vangars of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, all hateful and alienated on their snowy island, although that feeling softened as the story progressed and actually by the end I felt for all of them, even the most unsympathetic.

I found this book to be majestic, elegant and regal in its calm examination of the effects of living so far from others, where few it seems really want to be, and the impact that familial relationships and hierarchies can have, when forged in childhood and adolescence, on the rest of your life. The Helsingin Sanomat quote on the back of the book says that
The comparison to Shakespeare might seem grandiose, but it's justified...
and I totally agree. This book, constructed around multi-voice, intimate first-person narratives, sweeps most impressively from the smallest, most personally illustrative detail, such as
I have barely caught the crunch of the snow and I know who is coming. Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth. The brothers are so different. Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone...
 to sweeping statements about timeless events on the world stage that sent shivers down my spine:
Nor did I understand that wars are being waged all the time, that lines of men marching with their muskets are merely the visible culmination of constant power struggles, and that actual warfare takes places in salons lit by oil lamps in which liveried flunkies pour expensive champagne into crystal glasses, and wasp-waisted women wave their ivory fans languidly, and gentlemen sitting amidst thick cigar smoke - heirs of noblemen knighted by Gustav I of Sweden, or offspring of the Grand Dukes of Novgorod, owners of tens of thousands of souls - realize that they suddenly hanker after a ninth city palace or a sackful of diamonds, or that their lives have simply become too monotonous...
Isn't that gorgeous and horrifying, in equal measure? The first quote is actually the first paragraph of the whole book and when I opened that page and began reading yesterday, I immediately felt in the safest of hands.

Three things struck me as particularly impressive about this novella: one, that the individual character monologues are so delicately and tunefully rendered, marking real individuals whose joint experience spans Finnish society at that moment in time; two, that the plot is genuinely surprising - I had no road map for it, and I had no idea of the end of the book until literally the final word had been read - and three, how atmospheric it is. I went to Finland to visit the home of my lovely friend Sini for a few days in 2009, and the sheer scale of distances between places and the loneliness of the homes really rang true with my memories of it, as well as the fact that households are set up as self-contained fortresses of sustainment and endurance through the wild seasons and the bitter cold. I read this book in a few hours yesterday afternoon, first in a cafe then snuggled on the sofa wrapped in slippers and blanket, and at no point in that would I have been surprised to look up from the page and see miles and miles of quiet Finnish forest and snow. It's just so vivid.

So, a wonderful book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. It felt to me like a proper grown-up book, with epic themes and the calm yet passionate authority of the timeless horse who tops and tails the book with a snorting, rueful peace. A Small Epic indeed.

 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 (Sam's)

Title: The Brothers
Author: Asko Sahlberg, translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
Date: Original 2010, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 122 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.


  1. I think it's the small epic series that appeals to me most as a theme and I loved The Murder of Halland. This one is definitely going on the wishlist too. :)

    1. I'm really looking forward to the Murder of Halland - for so many people that seems to be the Peirene book that first comes to mind!

      Are you still planning on reading all of Peirene this year?

  2. You know I really enjoyed this one too. I like that you used the word 'regal' to describe it, as it fits with my own reading experience perfectly. And the plot was wonderfully surprising, wasn't it?
    I have high expectations for the rest of the Small Epics series now!

    1. It was - I couldn't predict a thing beyond the two brothers fighting at some point! My expectations are sky high for the Murder of Halland as so many people seem to love that :)


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