A Finnish Novel Reading List
Finnish Literature is a diverse and exciting place with a surprising width and depth of material. You won’t just find out about Finland or Finnish culture through these books but you will also read some of the best novels and novelists around. Literature can often be a gateway into understanding a mentality, whether it be a national character or a universal topic the author wants to talk about and the books here have both.
This list is of my personal highlights and maybe a miss or two but that are interesting enough that they should appeal to others. The list covers Finnish novels only with short reviews so you might get a flavour of the book and decide whether they might suit you.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson is much more famous for being the creator of the Moomins, a series of books and illustrations for children. They are a wonderful and timeless set of children masterpieces but she also wrote other books for adults. The Summer Book is a beautiful novel about a granddaughter and grandmother living on an island in the Finnish Archipelago.
This book really deserves to be held up as a great novel. It has a sparse language and minimal action and a strange humor, but it is powerful and beguiling without having to resort to a contrived or action packed plot. I always think the really best writers are the ones whose language remains simple while being able to communicate in a subtle way, and this Jansson really can do.
Perhaps it sometimes crosses the line of being a little too minimal but its brevity and lightness of touch save it. You get pulled in quickly and completely. Definitely mostly autobiographical I would think, it also somehow conveys the summer cottage experience that finns love. I highly recommend this book.
Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo
I found this a hard book to review, as it has elements I both love and hate. It is an updating or retelling of the Finnish Troll legends, where a troll enters the life of a young gay photographer in Helsinki. The troll comes from a past/parallel Finland of uncivilized pure nature and we can read the troll as the beast in us or the possibility of nature someday reclaiming us!
I like that the book is structured in a new and ambitious way.Chapter headings are the names of the characters narrating first person, and the narration is broken up by other elements such as faux newspaper reports and poems and website references etc. This element of the book is its most successful and I think its quite a direct and interesting way to tell a story and include some background information, legend and suspense. Unfortunately the excerpts are the highlight and the telling and style of the main story I found weaker by comparison.
The magical realism of the book carries little sense of gathering doom or tension, just some events strung together. The main story doesn't match up to the ambition of the subtext. It could have been a lot better and the feeling I was left with was a missed chance.
The Priest of Evil by Matti Jouensuu
A crime thriller or maybe more accurately a police procedural. Set in Helsinki and written by Matti Joensuu who was actually a policeman with Helsinki Police force until his retirement. A series of deaths in Helsinki tube stations lead Detective Timo Harjunpaa on the trail of a mysterious killer.
The first thing to do perhaps is to say this definitely isn't a thriller, and not some airport paperback either. It's a very well written police novel with some strong social and apparently autobiographical themes which deserve a deeper read. The characters are well written and translated and we get to see into most of their thoughts. The theme of treatment of children within families while not the supposed main plot in the book is for me its key and best element.
The crime story drives the plot but not that fast and compared to the other strands in the book a little disappointingly. But it deals with difficult issues very well I think and it is quite pessimistic in parts (is this a Finnish preoccupation?) but the overall balance in the book saves it. If you want a straightforward Detective story this book may not be for you, there is never any mystery, but if you are prepared to read a more complex novel with some universal themes you may like it.
Popular Music from Vittulaby Mikael Niemi
Is a funny bitter-sweet story of a boy growing up in the town of Pajala in the Arctic circle. The coming of age story of Matti in which each chapter is a short story or vignette which stands up to reading on its own. However when combined together the chapters set out the life of a wannabee rock and roll star growing up on the Swedish/ Finnish border wonderfully.
Not really a Finnish book at all but it is Nordic and talks about that part of Sweden where native Finnish is spoken and has been repressed there, and what life was like in that area. This is a worldwide bestseller and it is easy to see why. Narrated with the power of a true writers ability it clearly stands out from the crowd of recent fiction I've read, its told with real warmth, affection and humor. A fantastic book and well worth a read.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
A story that spans 60 years, the book opens in 1992 when a young girl turns up on a woman's front door, hurt and terrified. These two women's histories are interconnected and their past won’t stay buried. Set during the death throes of the Soviet occupation of Estonia it traces the story of the occupation told through a family in which abuse and betrayal runs through the generations.
This epic book is probably destined in the future to be on every Finnish students reading list at school, like Seven Brothers was before it. I found it a gripping and powerful read. A novel that might also open a window into the Soviet post war occupation of Europe and of violence to women.
Apparently when the Estonian translation was launched in Tallinn the police were on alert against any reprisals by communists.
The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
A Historical fiction novel set in a carefully reconstructed ancient Egypt wonderfully brought into life by the author. Sinuhe is the hero of the book an idealist who looks back on his life, broken and now in exile after Pharoh Akhenaten's fall and death. It's just great storytelling that's's able to transport you to a place so far away in time it could be so foreign to us but the writing brings you into that world convincinly.
It was the highest selling foreign novel in the USA for almost forty years. It remains as far as I know the only Finnish novel made into a Hollywood film in 1954.
The Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi
A story of seven brothers who are orphans and have to learn and grow to fend for themselves. It was also the first significant book written in the Finnish language, the others before had been written in Swedish so it qualifies as the classic of 19th-century Finnish literature. A heavy read which I couldn’t get well into but it is considered an allegory of Finnish character types.
It has been on the reading list in Finnish schools since forever and no doubt tortured school kids throughout the country. Maybe they should return to it in later life to find some humour and insight into the human condition.
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
This is my favorite novel of this list, its not about Grammar at all but a historical fiction novel set in WWII Helsinki. It’s a fantastically gripping story and also insightful in that it's able to able to delve into the Finnish character in a better and more poetic way than any factual book I have read ever has. It's a book about identity and about forgetting and remembering which plays out the lives of the charters and in bigger sweeps across nations.
Much like Popular Music by Mikael Niemi this book was not written by a Finn but by an Italian writer Diego Marani who is a very interesting character. He is a translator and invented a new language Europanto, which is a mix of English, German, Italian and Spanish.
The Kalevala by Elias Lonnrot
This book is compiled from the Oral tradition of stories told by the Finns before the language was even written down. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot at the beginning of the 19th century it is the cornerstone of the Finnish nation and represents a national epic poem caught and written down shortly before that type of tradition was extinguished.
It was integral to the national revival in Finland which saw the nation claim independence from Russia so it is a myth making story that also helped to forge the modern Country. The stories told take the form of a poem whose metre doesn’t vary, perhaps like other originally oral tales so that they were easier to memorise and recite again and again.
The list above is in no way comprehensive but I think its quite representative. The books span times and genres and are all worth checking out. They contain the view of foreigners looking at Finland and of Finns looking out past their country as well as Finnish books about Finland.
Do you know any books by Finnish Authors that I should read and add to the list? Or have you read any of these books on the list and have a comment about it. I would love if you dropped me a line in the comments about it.