Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. When peace is declared, both return home to confront rivalries much older and deeper than that brought about by the war.
This quiet, understated novella has been likened to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and there are similarities in the harsh, rural setting and the sense of deep family secrets seething below the slow, calm surface. It also shares with Faulkner’s masterpiece a series of beautifully realised narrative voices and skilful control of information. Sahlberg brings the strands of his story together at just the right pace, remorselessly manipulating the reader’s sense of dread as the feuding brothers and the rest of their family draw towards a climax.
There is, however, one big problem with the novella which prevents it being quite as good as it should be, given the beauty of the writing and the wonderful atmosphere of rural Finland in deep winter. This is a clumsy deus ex machina in the form of a sudden, inadequately explained inheritance which changes everybody’s fortunes in unexpected ways. I found this disappointing because there was no need for it. The pre-existing tensions between the characters and the revelation of a much more credible and dramatic family secret was quite enough to keep the story going and bring it to a much more satisfying and truthful conclusion. Sahlberg is clearly a very gifted writer, who lets himself down with this silly device which would be more at home in a drawing room comedy.
The book is worth reading, however, for its atmospheric setting and powerful characterisation.