The most enjoyable thing about True for me is how very Finnish it is.
The Gerts are great fans of Finland and were there a couple of years ago. What a pleasure it is to walk the streets of Helsinki again, to read about summer houses with saunas by icy lakes, and to experience the kindly seriousness that I like to associate with the Finns. It’s interesting that its Finnishness made such an impression on me, because I read a review that said it was irrelevant that it was set in Finland and that the interest was in the psychological drama played out between Elsa, her husband Martti, their daughter Eleonoora and her daughters Anna and Maria, and Martti’s former lover Eeva. There you go.
Elsa has come home to die after failed cancer treatment and is being cared for by Martti, Eleonoora, Anna and Maria. Anna finds out by accident that Martti had an affair forty years before with Eleonoora’s young nanny Eeva, an affair that destroyed Eeva. Elsa clearly knows all about it but Anna finds it impossible to address it directly with her or Martti. It’s a close family but they don’t easily reveal themselves to each other. Eleonoora, damaged by being caught up in the affair between Martti and Eeva, finds it impossible to speak of her emotions, and Anna is still suffering from a loss very like Eeva’s, desertion by a married lover who has a small daughter she loves. It’s ironic that Elsa is a psychologist renowned for her work on how children build healthy personalities through family bonds; but in spite of the silences between them those bonds are strong and clear. They’re the real heart of the book, the thing that’s “true” in the midst of betrayal and damage. The characters’ individual histories are tied together thematically, but it’s subtly done; understanding unfolds in us as the book shifts viewpoint between the characters and moves back and forth in time so that the young Eeva’s passionate narrative is balanced against the solidity and weathered tenderness of the present. I was more interested in the second of these, but perhaps that depends on how old you are. It’s an intelligent, Finnishly-serious book that offers the hope that true tenderness can see us through the passing storms of passion.
True (translated by Lola M. Rogers) is Riika Pulkkinen’s second book. She’s now written six.