Thursday 8 March 2012

I've been through the Tundra on a Horse with no name...

As regular readers will no doubt already know, I am a big fan of Peirene Press and their beautifully-presented slices of literary excellence, so I was very happy when I recently received a review copy of this year's first offering.  2012 is to be the year of the small epic, books cramming big themes into slender paperbacks, and I was very curious to see how this idea would pan out on paper.  So, without further ado, it's time to head off to a very wintry Finland - don't forget your thermals ;)

It seems strange in an unusually sun-drenched Melbourne to be turning to a story set in the snowy Arctic, but what's exactly what The Brothers is.  Asko Sahlberg's novella, translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah, is a piece of historical fiction, set in 1809 at the end of the war between Sweden and Russia.  Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, return to their family home, hoping to get on with life after their stints in the army.  It's unlikely to be a peaceful homecoming, however, as there is unresolved tension between the brothers - heightened by the fact that they served on different sides during the war.

The novella is narrated by a cast of people from the homestead (including the brothers): the old mistress, the mother of the returning soldiers; Erik's wife, Anna; the farmhand, an old family helper; and Mauri, an impoverished cousin.  The more that pours from the mouths of the narrators, the more we realise that this is not a happy family.  Behind the walls of the crumbling farmhouse, secrets abound - secrets which may well tear lives apart...

The story is told in the present tense, creating a sense of urgency and immediacy, and despite the frequent flash-backs, the overall feel is more of a play than of a novel.  The whole affair is over almost before it has begun, and the claustrophobic setting of the old farmhouse would be perfect for a stage.  There are frequent changes of scene with terse, tense confrontations between the old soldiers, moments which reveal much but promise more.

The Brothers is also full of descriptions of the unforgiving landscape surrounding, and at times cutting off, the house, emphasising the isolation of the family.  As we walk through the chill forests, treading watchfully through the thick snow, taking care not to pass too close to the icy, menacing waters of the river, the farmhouse seems almost inviting...

...but not quite.  The family home is a dark, gloomy, ramschackle edifice, a fitting symbol for the decline of the family fortunes.  On his return from the wars, Henrik sees the building with new eyes:
"This house is a cadaver.  The others are too close to see it, but it has already begun to decompose.  I flinch from its decay." p.48
This decay from years of neglect seems to have infected its inhabitants, most of whom have seen better days, few of whom have hope of a brighter future.  The ticking of clocks echoing around the rooms is a further reminder of how time has slipped away.

In a tight-knit family, this sense of hopelessness might be overcome; however, the cast of The Brothers are anything but.  Secrets abound, memories of events long past, and nobody trusts anyone enough to share them.  As the Farmhand comments, nothing can be taken on face value:
"It has always been this way around here: you say something when you mean something completely different, or at least more." p.17
The importance of sub-text in the story is palpable; things happen below the surface, and only the reader, privileged to watch events from several viewpoints, is able to (eventually) get an overview.

In the end, it is hard to believe that the story could have unfolded any other way.  There is a strong sense of fatalism, from the moment that Henrik sees (and covets) his neighbour's horse to the the pivotal, time-stopping moment in the crisp, snowy hills, where the destiny of the brothers lies in the hands of someone close to them.  Which is not to say that you won't be surprised by the turns the tale takes.

The Brothers is, I'm happy to say, another of Peirene's success stories.  While I would have preferred the book to be a little longer (and while I wasn't entirely convinced that the voices were always as distinct as they might have been), this is an excellent, elegant piece of writing, one I'm sure will stand up to rereading.  And who knows?  With the recent success of the theatre adaptation of Beside the Sea, perhaps this will be another book which will make the jump to the stage.  I'm not sure how they'll get the horse up there though...