Fishing, Farming, Faith and Community: Finnish Island Life, in spacious Fin-Lit-Fic
Forget the gloomy darkness of Scandi-Noir, what we have in Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s Ice is a carefully crafted, slowly unfolding sense of reading relationship, where characters are met, the reader can both quickly gain an instant, workable impression and find themselves deepening into understanding and friendship with them. There is, for sure, narrative, but the narrative is less driven by the over-blown, operatic demands of fast pounding scene building two-hours or less block-buster film making or airport reading suspense, and more the narrative imposed by the normal events of daily lives, carried out in particular times and places.
In this case, the time is 1946, the place the Örland (Äland) islands, off the Finnish and Swedish coast. My sense of Finland’s geography and history, before reading Lundberg’s novel, originally written in Swedish, and wonderfully translated by Thomas Teal, was far less than could have been written on the proverbial postage stamp. Now, it is considerably more, Lundberg painlessly, not to mention fascinatingly instructed me through the story of characters, and sent me to gain more understanding via the web. I was surprised, for example, that Lundberg was writing in Swedish, particularly as she is Finnish, and that language is the language spoken by the majority of Finns, though Swedish is the second language. Except……….that Lundberg comes from the Älands, and though the Islands are now “an autonomous part of Finland”, the language spoken by the vast majority is Swedish. The Äland archipelago has a complex relationship between its powerful mainland Scandinavian territories, and Finland as a whole an even more complicated history, squeezed between the historical rapacity of both Germany and Russia, and the complicated twentieth century conflicts. So there was a lot of interesting learning about background. Lundberg sensibly chooses to avoid having a character deliver lectures to enlighten the reader, much is throwaway information, which a reader can either choose to immediately accept, perhaps with a small cloud of minor puzzlement, or can choose, as I did, to want to grapple with in ‘on the side’ research.
What the reader is instantly drawn into is how a small community, with the normal alliances and enmities which any small community might have, lives out its lives. If you welcome a book which describes a much more visceral life than one lived in cities, this should fascinate, because the detail of the seasons, the food, the culture of lives lived by engaging with the land itself is wonderfully done
The main storyline concerns a novice Lutheran priest, Petter Kummel,his wife Mona, and their young daughter, Sanna, who arrive on Älund. Petter is there to be the new pastor. It is of course a brilliant way to introduce the reader to Älund life, as the central characters also are in the process of learning! Much happens, trials, tribulations, celebrations, friendships, rivalries, complex family and community dynamics. And, arching over all, a deep love of, and relationship with landscape, from the author, and from her characters.
Their third winter, Petter has lived through every kind of weather out here on the Örlands and moves easily on land and water across his parish. The darkness is not completely dark. Because the islands are not covered with forest, the land lies open to the sky. Starlight and moonlight can reach it, or the gliding streak of light between sky and sea. “out here we’re always in touch with heaven!” he says to people who ask if he’s not afraid of getting lost in the dark
Petter himself is warm, energetic, compassionate, though there will be some history for the reader to discover; he is far more than a saintly cipher. He is the kind of man who sees the best in others, and so calls that forth. Mona is irascible, energetic, no-nonsense, intensely practical. The two are both foils for each other and excellent partners. Their relationship is deeply loving and supportive, though their natures conflict as much as support each other. They, like the reader, will get deeply involved into caring about the community, and the land they live by, with, on, from.
For much of her adult life, the resources have been so meagre and the need in some cases so pressing that it seemed to her more and more that there was a fixed, inadequate quantity of things in the world. If someone comes up in the world and basks in the sun a bit, then that well-being and sunshine are denied someone else. It’s the same way with things like joy and success. The sum total is paltry. If a little love and happiness come our way, someone else is deprived of them. Envy, which is such a stone in our path, derives from this insight, as does our reluctance to reveal our good fortune to others.
The structure of the book is a mite curious, we drift into third person, first person, changing points of view, but it works rather wonderfully. There is a bookend voice, and one which marks major changes, that of the post-boat pilot, Anton, who ferries change and provisions and contact between the Örlands and the wider world, to-and-fro. Anton is like some mythical boatman between worlds. What he does is absolutely real, but there is an undercurrent of messengers from classical mythology, who travel between realms. The nature of his work, in these sometimes frozen, isolated seas, makes him introspective and open to intuitive sensings.
I warmly recommend this, which I received as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK. Published 4th February in UK and US