The Brothers, by Finnish writer Asko Sahlberg, is the first in Peirene Press’s series of the “Small Epic”. The publisher also draws comparisons with Shakespeare and William Faulkner. No pressure, then.
Surprisingly the book did not disappoint. It’s only 122 pages but does pack in a lot of story, including among other things warring brothers, family betrayal, sexual tension, death, illness, gambling debts, bankruptcy, attempted fratricide, blackmail, prostitution and the 1809 war between Sweden and Russia. And yet it never feels like a very dramatic book. The elements of the story accumulate quietly, like snow falling in a Finnish forest.
At first, in fact, the accumulation felt too soft for me. The novel is written in the alternating voices of each of the characters, and the voices didn’t feel real for me – they seemed overly cryptic, deliberately withholding information while dropping hints about drama to come. They said things like:
Yesterday I saw the footprints of a wolf at the edge of the snowy field. That was how I guessed. That was why I went outside, into the pale dawn.
There’s lots of that sort of thing, lots of hints and guesses and references to things we the reader don’t know about. The older brother Henrik comes back from the war, his younger brother Erik is away, and both of these things are bad. There’s a strong sense of foreboding, but nothing is revealed for a long time. Then the drama comes in an avalanche, although because most of it in flashback rather than in the timespan of the main narrative, it again has a somewhat muted feel. What would appear to verge on melodrama if recounted in real time comes to seem quite believable when delivered in flat remembrance.
To be honest I didn’t find the voices very distinct. Each section is preceded by a subheading to indicate who the narrator is, and without that I wouldn’t have had a clue. The style throughout is very consistent, literary and often poetic, whether it’s one of the brothers speaking or the wife or the vengeful cousin or the unnamed Farmhand. Only the mother stands out for being consistently out to lunch, writing about how well the hens are laying even as everything falls apart around her.
There are several revelations at the end, and although one of them was not too surprising, the others were a genuine surprise. Things seem to be moving in a particular direction and Sahlberg takes us off in another one, unpredictable and, although it relies somewhat on a deus ex machina in the form of a sudden legacy from a long-lost relative in America, still handled well and completely believable.
I’ve read all the Peirene novels so far (it’s a relatively new publishing house, in its third year, focusing on short European novels in translation), and while this isn’t my overall favourite (that honour goes to Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea), it’s right up there with the consistently high quality of the others, and doesn’t feel out of place among the grand comparisons drawn in the cover blurb.
Get a second opinion
For other opinions on this book, see Parrish Lantern, The Independent on Sunday, The Cadaverine, Galina, Iris on Books, Sabotage Reviews, Just William’s Luck, The Black Sheep Dances, or Desperate Reader.