19 August 2008

Elina Hirvonen, When I Forgot, 2005

This debut quickly became the most internationally successful Finnish novel, to date. Anna, a Helsinki journalist, sits in a café piecing together the lives of her own family, shattered in a moment of domestic violence, and that of her American partner Ian, torn apart by his estranged father’s experience of the Vietnam War. Through these two central and well-drawn figures tensions radiate outwards in all directions with each character carrying their own burden of family history, particularly Anna’s own psychotic brother for whom mental suffering has become a fact of life, and Ian who lost his father to post-traumatic stress disorder and feels helpless in the face of his country revisiting its enormous mistakes upon another generation. Written in a taut style that jumps back and forth from the late 1960s to 9/11 to the Iraq War protests, this is a subtle and layered novel about the far-reaching effects of both small- and large-scale kinds of violence that never leave anyone untouched. Like entering someone else’s head for a day, it even has a happy ending of sorts and will be well worth a re-read. Rather unique.  PY


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