Review: Compartment no. 6 by Rosa Liksom


SERPENT'S TAIL, 2014/2011

A sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow, in the waning years of the Soviet Union. Bound for Mongolia, she’s trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartment—No. 6.—but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights.

There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn’t cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he’s brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where “everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts,” a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of Compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring this incantatory story about a ruined but beautiful country to its powerful conclusion.

Compartment no. 6 is a fantastic novel about travelling – the odd kinship formed between complete strangers – and about Soviet Russia. It begins with the boarding of the Trans-Siberian train, in which a young Finnish student finds herself sharing a train compartment with a boorish Russian construction worker. The girl is looking for an escape from her current situation, because she feels trapped and unable to make up her mind about her relationship with a young man she cares for. Hoping to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Siberian nature and to shut herself from the world, she is, however, forced to come into contact with the brazen, oversharing comrade.

The beauty of the novel lies in the way in which it describes movement. Liksom’s writing is so vivid and compelling that I could almost see the landscape flashing in the train window with my very own eyes – all from the comfort of my comfy couch and centrally heated apartment. I guess it is no wonder that Liksom chose to set the novel during the freezing winter season, as it emphasises the desperation to live and the yearning to die inherent in the nation. The apathy and passion, the poverty and garish luxury – the Soviet Union drawn in Compartment no. 6 is full of contradictions. Even the most despicable travel companion somehow becomes endearing in closed confinement.

Although the many of the details have faded away in the months after reading this novel, Compartment no. 6 is one that still occasionally comes back to haunt me. Although at first it might seem slightly underwhelming in action, the novel leaves a lasting impression. The rhythm of the narration, the pulse of the train on the tracks, feels alive, and the depiction of Soviet Russia as both abhorrent and intriguing is almost loving. There is much to despise in the swearing, uneducated, misogynic male character, but yet there is also the hint of honesty and raw humanity that’s been stripped back to its basest form. So what is the novel really about? In my opinion it’s about two people, two worlds coming together in a closed space; the contact is unavoidable, and though the situation feels occasionally very claustrophobic, there is also much to learn by listening and opening up to these discussions.

I very much enjoyed Compartment no. 6, and I’m glad that it has been translated into several languages and thus has found (and hopefully charmed) readers across the world. If you do ever come across a copy of this book, I urge you to pick it up and read it. For such a short novel it provides fascinating insight to human relationships. I’d especially recommend this to readers who are planning to or have travelled the Trans-Siberian railway or are interested in Soviet fiction in general. If you want more convincing, I suggest you read also Sarah’s and Madame Bibi’s fantastic reviews.


An unknown Russia frozen in ice opens up ahead, the train speeds onward, shining stars etched against a tired sky, the train plunging into nature, into oppressive darkness lit by a cloudy, starless sky. Everything is in motion: snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people, thoughts.

What Edith Södergran taught me about reading poetry

SLS, 2014/1990

I was contemplating on following my typical format of book reviews for this bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s works until I realised that I had no idea what to write. I cannot summarise the plot, for there are too many; I cannot compare Södergran to other poets, for I haven’t read many; and I most certainly cannot pretend to understand what the poems are “really about”. Instead I offer you my scrambled thoughts on reading – or at least trying to read – Edith Södergran’s poetry.

Edith Södergran (1892–1923) is considered to be one of the greatest poets of Finland. Similarly to the creator of Moomin series Tove Jansson, Edith Södergran was Finnish-Swedish and wrote all of her poems in Swedish. However, Södergran was educated in a German school and read both German and French, which gave her access to the literature of the time and partly contributed to Södergran being one of the first modernist poets in Finland – as a movement, modernism became more prevalent in Finnish literature in 1950s. Especially remembered from her post-humous collection Landet som icke är (‘The Land that Does Not Exist’), Södergran is a name often referenced in the Finnish literary scene. My first encounter with Södergran’s poetry was the title poem of Landet som icke är printed in my high school textbook, which sparked an interest to read more of her works. Fast-forwarding several years to the end of last year, I came to realise that despite the fact that I was reading a variety of different genres, I didn’t really read different forms – and should give poetry a honest try. Thus when I came across this beautiful paperback bind-up of all Edith Södergran’s published and unpublished works (in Swedish, might I add), I knew where I wanted to start.

Now, some of you who are more seasoned poetry readers might be shaking your heads at this. Typical beginner’s mistake: I knew next to nothing about Edith Södergran, I wasn’t fluent in Swedish, and I didn’t realise that tackling a 350+ paged poetry collection wouldn’t be as easy as reading a novel of the same length. However, I was motivated to give it my best try and everything was working fine – for the first month or so. I started reading the bind-up in March and read the first two collections in few weeks –  often in bouts. My process would begin by reading the first ten poems with full-on concentration, re-reading the poems again and again until I got some sense out of them. Then, having spent a lot of energy on a few poems, I often ended up skim reading the next twenty or so until I found something that really spoke to me and hit me so hard I had to stop reading just to think about them. I savoured those poems, committing long passages into memory, and they also gave me the sense of gratification – I finally understood poetry! However, as March transitioned into April and then into May, I noticed that I didn’t look forward to the moments that I dedicated for poetry. Although I enjoyed most of the actual reading of the poetry, taking the steps to do so felt taxing.

Edith Södergran was one of the first poets that embraced modernism, aside from T.S. Eliot, and according to Tavern Books, her poetry shows influences also from French symbolism, German expressionism and Russian futurism. Except in her earlier poems, Södergran rarely uses rhyme schemes or other traditional poetry formats in her poems. Her poems move in the realms of fantasy, myths, and nature, and the latter is particularly prominent in all of her collections. Gosh, we Finns really do love to write about nature. Many have described Södergran’s poems as lovely daydreams, but for me, her best poems were those that dealt with our relationship with ourselves as well as how that self interacts with other people. It’s simply stunning. But confession time: most of the time I honestly didn’t know whether Södergran was really talking out flowers, or if it was just a metaphor. And that’s what hard about poetry – sometimes you really don’t know. With novels you often have several hundred pages of text from which you can try to deduce the intention of the writer, but with poetry you often have only one page. It’s seems that more than anything, poetry is about reading between the lines.

As I mentioned above, I read Södergran’s poems in the language that they were written, namely Swedish. This was because 1) the bind-up was only available in Swedish and because 2) I’ve been actively trying to read more fiction in Swedish in order to improve my skills in said language. However, I was wholly unprepared to the change in language that has happened between Swedish in 1920s and in today – the language of the twenties was almost greek to me. There were many times that I had to read a single poem again and again and hope to find a lead that would pull me in. Sometimes I found it, and sometimes I didn’t. All in all, it was a rather tiring process and reading in small bouts, it took me from March to mid-July to read through the entire bind-up. The few poems that completely won me over, however, made the struggle worth it and reaching the end of the book made me feel at least a tiny bit accomplished. And what did I learn from this? Don’t read poetry in a language that you don’t fully master, unless you’re intentionally studying it – the sense of enjoyment will diminish every time you reach for the dictionary.

I hope I haven’t scared all of you off by now, because despite my struggles with poetry, I still think that Edith Södergran was on to something great. If you’re interested in modernism, feminist poetry, or Finnish authors, here are few places where you can read Södergran in English. For starters, Edith Södergran has her own Poetry Foundation page, which features five of her poems. Translator David McDuff has translated two books of Södergran’s poetry – her debut collection Poems (1916) and an edition called Complete Poems – but you can also read some of his translations online at From Goodreads I spotted Stina Katchadourian’s translation Love and Solitude: Selected Poems, 1916–1923 and On Foot I Wandered Trough the Solar Systems, translated by Malena Morling and Jonas Ellenstrom. The most recent collection is We Women, which is translated by Samuel Charters and was published by Tavern Books in 2015.

As for the future of my poetry reading, I will continue to persevere for those small ‘heureka’ moments and hopefully one day I can return to Södergran with much more understanding of the language that she speaks.

Vierge Moderne (tr. David McDuff)
I am not a woman. I am a neuter.
I am a child, a page and a bold resolve,
I am a laughing stripe of a scarlet sun…
I am a net for all greedy fish,
I am a toast to the glory of all women,
I am a step towards hazard and ruin,
I am a leap into freedom and self …
I am the whisper of blood in the ear of the man,
I am the soul’s ague, the longing and refusal of the flesh,
I am an entrance sign to new paradises.
I am a flame, searching and brazen,
I am water, deep but daring up to the knee,
I am fire and water in free and loyal union …

Review: Tähtikirkas, lumivalkea by Joel Haahtela (eng. Star Bright, Snow White)

OTAVA, 2013

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.

Tainted by a tragedy in his homeland, a young man writes diary entries in Paris in 1889. The young man succeeds to gain a position as a correspondent in a news agency and takes the reader on a magical trip to sizzling Berlin and its intoxicating nights, and later far far away to the colonialised Far East.

In 2012 in Helsinki a descendant of this young man finds his diaries and discovers that every one of us leaves a mark on the world. But there are those that pay a dearer price for it, and who mourn for the sake of others.

Similarly to Neil Gaiman, of whom I’ve written here previously, Joel Haahtela is one of those authors who I’ve been meaning get into more and to discover what the hype around him is really about. My first try with Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point) wasn’t really a big hit, but I’d heard much praise for his newest novel, Star Bright, Snow White, that I decided to include it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. And having now read the novel, it turns out that I still don’t quite get the hype, but do enjoy reading and admire his writing style.

The story of Star Bright, Snow White follows a young man who has been banished from his home country Finland to Paris, France. On his partly self-inflicted exile the young man writes in his diary letters to his lover, who he’ll probably never see again. The book is told in diary entries that slowly reveal what caused the young man to abandon his love, his art studies and his country and how this trauma is reflected as years and decades go by. Despite his Finnish background, the young man speaks rather fluent French and, through his uncle’s connections, he is employed in a French news agency during The Great Exhibition 1889. About a decade later the man has been promoted to foreign correspondent – first to Berlin in 1913–1914 and later on an excursion to the Far East in early 1920s. Star Bright, Snow White is a story of an idealistic budding artist on a crash course with the brutalities of life and in developing an identity.

Like Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point), Star Bright, Snow White is  a beautifully written exploration of humanity, in which style runs the game. Haahtela describes vividly the historical aspects of Paris in late 1889, The Great Exhibition, Berlin in the 1913, and the self-induced alienation and estrangement that the character feels towards his homeland. It is a puzzle with missing pieces in which the reader has no clear answers. For example, is the main character trying to escape from his past by running away and diving head first into his work, or is it simply his a fear of inadequacy? The journal entries of the book cover short periods of time and can often jump as much as 15 years forward without any explanation. As a whole, Star Bright, Snow White was an interesting and emotional experience – especially the final notes of the diary were heart-wrenching.

Haahtela has a talent for writing historical fiction with his own style and the time periods covered in this book were definitely ones that I haven’t read much about and that appealed to me very much. However, the novel left me questioning whether I had grasped it’s meaning or not. Right when I felt like I got it, it seemed to slip away from my hand and run between my fingers. Also the main character stayed aloof and I didn’t really get a sense of him. As for the present day part, I didn’t really care that much for it except that it brought some sort of closure to the story. I’d recommend Star Bright, Snow White to readers who enjoy complex characters, unanswered questions, and a bit of artsy European history thrown into the mix.



Review: The Beggar and the Hare by Tuomas Kyrö

SHORT BOOKS, 2015/2011

Vatanescu is striving for a better life, and with it a pair of football boots for his son – but his search has led him to collecting small change on the streets of Helsinki, and he needs something drastic to change his fortunes.

His lucky break comes when a fellow outcast – a hare with an injured paw – hops into his life. In rescuing the little creature from certain death, he finds not just a companion, but a source of unexpected inspiration and wisdom.

Together, the beggar and the hare embark on an adventure that is both funny and absurd. Theirs is a moving story about the meaning of friendship, with the power to change the way we see ourselves.

Picked as one of the Waterstones’ book club books for this spring, The Beggar and the Hare is a humorous road trip with two unlikely accomplices and a myriad of peculiar, yet identifiable characters. The author, Tuomas Kyrö, is a popular humorist writer in Finland and the story of The Beggar and the Hare is his modern retelling of the Finnish classic The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna. The original story follows a middle-aged journalist who one day gets enough of the rat race as a consequence to a road accident involving a hare. The man adopts the injured animal, leaves everything behind and heads out to the wilderness for a year.

The Beggar and the Hare follows a Romanian beggar Vatanescu who was recruited from his home village to work in the Nordic countries in order to buy his son a pair of football boots. However, when he arrives to Helsinki, Finland, it turns out that the work in question is organised begging in the corners of the city. Life as a beggar is tough and one day Vatanescu has enough and after a confrontation with his Russian boss, runs away. But in a strange country and with a very angry Russian criminal after him, Vatanescu is all alone. But when he runs into an injured city hare, he picks it for his travel companion, and together the two encounter several personalities, such as a first wave Chinese immigrant, a traveling magician, a patriotic pensioner, and many more. Despite the language barrier and his obscurity, the travelling beggar ends up becoming an online sensation with the entire country looking for him.

I had previously read some essays and short stories from Kyrö, so I knew what to expect from his style. And having read The Year of the Hare in school, I was interested to know how he’d update the classic. Turns out it works quite well. The Beggar and the Hare is funny, exciting and filled with random moments as well as sharp jabs at the current society. The book was originally published in the 2011 and it references some of the major changes in the Finnish political atmosphere – such as the landslide of votes for the right-wing populist True Finns party – which were so on point, but I also fear that they might not translate well for a reader outside of the culture. However, there is more to the book than the satire of Finland-centered issues as poverty and globalisation are known around the world. The Beggar and the Hare has kind of a road movie-ish type of structure spiced with a lot of cultural collisions between Romanian and Finnish customs. Overall, the books was an enjoyable and a very quick read, but in my opinion it could have been snarkier and bitten more deeply into few issues rather than lightly on several. I’d definitely recommend it to readers who have read The Year of the Hare, but it’s not mandatory. Any reader who enjoys absurd roadtrips or is interested in Finnish culture and society of today should be able to enjoy this book.

For more insights about the book, I’d recommend that you check out Tuomas Kyrö’s interview in the Waterstones blog. You can also read an extract from the book there.


If a beggar had a smile on his face it robbed him of credibility and showed up as reduced cash flow. If you made people feel pity and guilt, one got mercy. Mercy was money, mercy was the biggest thing in Protestant religion and life in social democracies. In the Nordic countries people had such a low pity threshold that their coins burned a hole in their pockets.

‘We help to make it easier for them,’ Yegor explained. ‘The donor ends up with a good conscience. I take seventy-five per cent, you get twenty-five.’


Review: Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

PEIRENE PRESS, 2013/2009

A postmodern Victorian novel about faith, knowledge and our inner needs.

The late 1870s, the Kentish village of Downe. The villagers gather in church one rainy Sunday. Only Thomas Davies stays away. The eccentric loner, father of two and a grief-stricken widower, works as a gardener for the notorious naturalist, Charles Darwin. He shuns religion. But now Thomas needs answers. What should he believe in? And why should he continue to live?

‘A stunning, poetic work. Like Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age. The apparent tensions between science and spirituality, Darwinism and humanism, reach a beautiful, life-affirming resolution.’ – Meike Ziervogel

I came upon Mr Darwin’s Gardener soon after Peirene Press had picked up White Hunger to be translated, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the title before – considering that the book is translated from my native Finnish. As I started looking up reviews of the book, all the reviews I read were very positive and having now read the book, I can see why. Similarly to The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I discovered a gem of Finnish literature through translation!

Mr Darwin’s Gardener is set in a small country village of Downe in Kent in the 1870s – most notably known as the home of scientist Charles Darwin. Tomas Davies, who works as Mr Darwin’s gardener, has recently been widowed and has, consequently, drawn away from the village society. The villagers look after one another, although mainly from behind of the window glass, and at the heart of the story lies their reaction to a member distancing himself from the community. However, aside from the problem of Mr. Davies, every villager has their own problems and hidden aspirations. For example, Mary Kenny wants to be a writer but never has the time to write and Rosemary Rowe hides something from her husband. By switching the focus of the narration from one character to another, Carlson not only shows the village life from many perspectives but also presents the power of the collective consciousness and how it affects those within the circle as well as those outside.

I absolutely adored Mr Darwin’s Gardener with its thought-provoking passages, glimpses of life and the poetic writing that balanced it all. However, I must admit that this book is not for those who want to read a book as quickly as possible. I actually started the book twice, because the first time around I just couldn’t get my head around it. Nevertheless, the strangeness of the multiple voices gradually became clearer and won me over. The writing style and the layers of the story make it utterly engrossing; how something so strange and at the same time so intricate and cleverly constructed has been written is beyond me. Moreover, Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation carries the lyrical aspect of the text extremely well and I can’t wait to read this also in its original form. Mr Darwin’s Gardener is not a very conventional novel as it doesn’t focus on around a single event but offers snapshots of varying scenes that weave together. The one character notably missing from the village life is Mr Darwin himself, although he is often remembered in the discussions of the villagers.

All in all, Mr Darwin’s Gardener was such an enthralling experience that I find it hard to express just how much I enjoyed it. It’s definitely one of my favourite reads of this year. If you are looking for lyrical and poetic writing, discussions on the dichotomy of religion and science, or a book about life in the Kentish countryside in 1870s, you should definitely look up this book.


I have decided that the cover of the book should not be too dark and the front page will have a simple gravure. The typeface must be discreet so that the book does not scream at you. It should look elegant and appeal to intelligent persons, not women who buy cheap little booklets, Mary Kenny says.

Mary Kenny says: My reader is certain to be an educated woman. She won’t put the book down just because the author’s name is still unknown. No, she will leaf through the pages, taking care not to bend them. I am going to demand a proper binding, so that people can read the book in bed comfortably. On the other hand, if my reader were to start reading at night, perhaps she would not be able to stop and go to sleep. I will begin writing really quite soon.


Comics round: Kypsyyskoe (Villimpi Pohjola #3) by JP Ahonen & Vain pahaa unta by Aino&Ville Tietäväinen

I don’t read a lot of graphic novels or comics, but over the spring I’ve read two that I’d love to talk about. One of them was a lucky find from a second hand bookshop and the other a spur of the moment pick from the library. Moreover, both are Finnish which means they count towards my 15 in 2015 challenge! Unfortunately neither of them has been translated into English, but I’ve included some pictures to give you a sense of the drawing style.

Disclaimer: Neither of these books have, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.


It all began in 2003 as a series of Sunday strips depicting student life. Today the Villimpi Pohjola series is a cult phenomenon and has a steady but growing fanbase. From separate slapstick panels and single moment stills, the story has matured to contain larger story arcs. From the large cast of characters of the previous albums only the core are left and they continue to develop their identity from page to page. More than anything, the troupe of friends now faces the challenges of serious relationships, falling in love and loss. Kypsyyskoe (eng. Maturity test) presents the everyday situations from a new angle – without forgetting the omnipresent twinkle in the eye. The series is a mixture of the everyday life of a student, pop culture references, drama and parody.

I’ve been following the Villimpi Pohjola comic series for about 5 years on and off, but I became almost obsessed back in 2014 when I discovered that the artist had published entire albums. The series now has four albums that have been published (plus a compiled version of the first two) and I’ve been tracking down to collect them all. A few months ago I was hanging out in the centre with my friend – waiting to see The Theory of Everything – when we stopped by this second hand bookshop that had put books on display outside. I had heard that the third album in question, Kypsyyskoe (eng. Maturity Test), was about to sell out and had contemplated on ordering it, when I chanced to see it from the shop window. It only took me a couple minutes to fish out my money and sprint to the counter and smiling from ear to ear.

The name of the third album, Maturity Test, refers to the test that students have to take after submitting their thesis to prove that they can write properly. However, the title is also apt because instead of showing simply young students getting into all sorts of scrapes and living life to the fullest, it focuses a lot more on maturing and becoming an adult (aka. adulting). There are many different storyline that alternate, but alongside those are also the crazy, laugh-out-loud, and slapstick-y moments that really make the series what it is. It doesn’t try to take itself too seriously despite the fact that it sometimes deals with serious topics.



Art ©JP Ahonen; Photo ©Dawn of books

WSOY, 2013

When a child has a nightmare, it’s the adult’s job to step up and explain that everything is okay. The nightmares of young girl Aino derive from everyday situations as well as from the collective consciousness. In her dreams, Fluffy has gone missing, giant high-heels-wearing hares chase her in the woods and daddy has transformed into a drawing of dark black lines that doesn’t even look like daddy.  Even the scariest things can be trapped on paper, and thought the dream is sometimes SO bad that you can even put it in a book, talking about it to a grown-up helps!

Vain pahaa unta (eng. Only a Bad Dream) was nominated a few years back for the esteemed Childrens’ Finlandia prize and also caused a lot of discussion about the images that children are exposed to through the media. The author duo are a father and daughter, who have together collaborated a book based on the daughter’s nightmares. Ville Tietäväinen is a well-known illustrator and a comic artist and Aino is his 7-year-old daughter. The book presents a collection of Aino’s nightmares from the ages of 4 to 6 as well as small strips presenting discussions between the father and the daughter about these nightmares and about seeing nightmares.


Art ©Aino & Ville Tietäväinen; Photo ©Dawn of books

Despite the fact that it’s been a long time since I saw nightmares such as these, even the absurd fears of Aino truly spoke to me and moved me – and made me feel like they were my nightmares. The book is quite short but it is filled with details and points that make you stop and consider about the things behind these nightmares. Some of the nightmares, such as The Hotel (age 4)(pictured above), really show how something seen in the news or in a film can transform into a very frightening nightmare. After reading Only a Bad Dream I pushed it to many people and talked about it with many of my friends. I liked how the art combined the drawings of Aino with those of his father and also how the narration moved across the pages. I only wish that the book would have had a longer foreword or an afterword, because despite the strong visual effect of the book, I would have wanted to read more about the nightmares and about the exchanges between these two artists.

EDIT: A few pages of the book have been translated into English and can be found from the Books from Finland website.



Review: Maa on syntinen laulu by Timo K. Mukka (Eng. The Earth is a Sinful Song)

GUMMERUS, 2013/1964

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Timo K. Mukka’s exquisite debut novel is like a ballad – startling and beautiful in its coarseness. The story follows Martta, a young woman, and a small village in Lapland where people are torn between feverish religiousness and strong sexual instincts. Martta falls is love with a Sami reindeer herder and their brief and unconventional love story is described in a way that is rough and naturalistic but at the same time very lyrical. Against the backdrop of the powerful and extreme nature of Lapland and the depressing life of a closed community. The religious fervour and the oppressing atmosphere of the homestead create a tough opposition for Martta’s love story.

Timo K. Mukka (1944–1973) published his debut novel at the tender age of 19. The reception of the novel was crushing as the strong descriptions of the sexual and religious acts were too much for the readers at the time. The attitudes of the media and the readers remained conflicted throughout Mukka’s career and the appreciation for his works began rising only after his early death. Nowadays Timo K. Mukka is considered one the most influential Finnish writers of his time.

Having lived some years in the northern Finland, you cannot avoid hearing the name of Timo K. Mukka. Mukka lived most of his life in northern Finland and many of his novels are also set in there. However, although his reputation still lives on, he is not a novelist whose works are particularly read or appreciated. In that sense, there is a clear divide between the readers in northern Finland and in southern Finland, where Mukka’s influence is stronger. As for me, I probably would not have picked up The Earth is Sinful Song for a long while if it were not for the TBR 274 list. The blurb and the themes don’t really appeal to me that much and it was only because of the cover and some reviews praising his unique writing style that I decided to give this novel a try.

The Earth is a Sinful Song describes the people living in a small village in northern Lapland in the 1940s. The main character Martta is a young woman approaching adulthood and the book follows her journey of coming to terms with her sexuality and the realities of marriage in a small, close-knit community. Mixed in to the story are the relationship of her parents, the angry and sickly mother, the father who alternates between heavy drinking and hard working, and the old man who keeps a close eye on everyone. The life in the community revolves around two opposing issues: alcohol and religion, both of which include a hefty dose of sexual acts. When Martta sets her heart on the disreputable reindeer herder, she has to deal with the reactions from both her family as well as her nosy neighbours.

The writing reflects the dialect of the region which sets the story on the context of Lapland in the 1940s. Most of the time the story felt light-years away from modern day and it made it very hard for me to understand the actions of the characters. The praised style of writing was great, and I adored the short snippets of the melody that was strewn between chapters – if only the rest had been as mystical as that I would have given it five stars regardless of the plot. In the end, The Earth is a Sinful Song however was not to my taste and I found myself occasionally very alienated from the book. I understand the controversy as well as the novelty of the book, but the crudeness was a bit too much for me personally. It made the point it was trying, but in no way was it in good taste. Keeping all this in mind, I still very much appreciated how the book challenged me as a reader – it pushed me outside of my comfort zone and made me view things from a different perspective. For that reason solely, I would recommend The Earth is a Sinful Song as an example of experimental and modernist Finnish fiction. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll be taking on any of Timo K. Mukka’s other books any time soon. A very conflicting read.



Review: Punainen viiva by Ilmari Kianto (Eng. The Red Line)

OTAVA, 1970/1909

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly. 

Ilmari Kianto’s (1874–1970) The Red Line was published in 1909 and depicts the time of the first universal and equal vote in Finland in the beginning of 20th century. The story is set in the rural community of Eastern Finland and it centers around a couple, Topi and Riikka, who try to understand the unravelling events of the approaching vote and the promises of social change that it might bring. The novel offers an insightful look into the minds of the poorer classes of the early 20th century and its characters have settled their place in the literary canon of Finland. This edition features the cover that was designed for the first edition, but never used due to the strong controversy of the topic.

For a long time The Red Line was a title that I instantly recognised as one of the Finnish classics but had no idea what the book was about. And had it not been for a paper that I’m currently writing, it would have stayed so for a few more years. Because of the political issues discussed in the book and the fact that it was published only two years after the first universal vote, it was considered rather controversial.

The Red Line begins with a beautiful description of the forest in the autumn, from the perspective of a great bear. As the bear falls into hibernation, we enter the small cottage of Topi and Riikka Romppainen and their small children who prepare for the upcoming winter with the dread that what they have might not be enough. As the winter sets in, their fears are realised and Topi has to travel to the closest village to sell some of their valuables to buy food for the family. However, as he arrives to the village, he is struck by the notion that something strange is afoot. The workers and farmers are holding meetings and reading the paper aloud. Topi is soon told that an election is arriving and there is a rumour that, for once, the poor will have a voice. When Topi return home, Riikka dismisses the news as village gossip but is soon proved wrong as politics comes knocking on their own door. As winter turns into spring the visitors of the small cottage tell of change that could turn their world upside down.

SO SO GOOD. This book had me hooked from the very beginning and I couldn’t believe I had ever not wanted to read it. The Red Line seems to have everything: complex narration, symbolism, beautiful description of nature, interesting language, heart-wrenching story but with an occasional glint in the eye. The red line of the title symbolises the voting process in which voters had to draw a line next to the candidate that they were voting for – with a red pencil. Simply reading about the two main characters anxiously preparing for this moment, the moment of drawing the line, was at the same time so strange and so empowering. The author has truly captured something very pure and raw about the people and the time. The Red Line isn’t a historical document per se, but it provides an insight to the history of Finland in a way that opened my eyes. In order to catch the references, you do need to understand the history of Finnish independence, but I’m sure it could also be read without the background information. The Red Line is definitely one of my new favourites! So if you ever do have the chance to read this, please do!


The day of the red line was fast approaching. The printing machines pounded on and on. Red letters whisked like fiery dragons across the country; biting till blood, lighting the spirit aflame.