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Asko Sahlberg – The Brothers

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A lot of surprises and shocks in a very short amount of time.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 116
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-6-8
First Published: 2010 in Finnish; 2012 in English
Date Reviewed: 2nd March 2012
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Finnish
Original title: He (They)
Translated by: Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

Henrik and Erik are back from the war between Sweden and Russia, where they were fighting on opposite sides. But this isn’t the only issue between them as they arrive home at different times. There has been animosity between them, and between Henrik and his family since childhood, and yet there is something else lingering in the darkness, ready to pounce.

Once again Peirene Press has delivered a stunning novella from the minds of continental Europe. However where previous publications have brought a few particular issues to the forefront of the mind, it is more the structure of this book that stands out. Entirely different in every way, it really does feel as though you are being introduced to Sahlberg, and perhaps Finnish writing in general, in a way that suggests that like the Nordic countries’ most internationally recognised musicians, their writings are in a wonderful realm all of their own.

What is perhaps most striking about the book is the way that it has been told and structured. The sectioning off of the story into short pieces, into the different points of view of the several characters, reads like a script from theatre. While Sahlberg (for although the book has been translated one can assume that Emily and Fleur Jeremiah have been as accurate as possible) does not break the fourth wall, the way that his characters tend to speak in the present tense, as a monologue, comes very close to it. And the very way in which each monologue begins is reminiscent of the strong introductions from the sorts of productions that critics of drama herald as magnificent. One cannot help but imagine how the book might be performed on stage, the monologues being strong enough in themselves that a group could simply sit on the stage with a spotlight to highlight the one speaking and the effect would be powerful enough to warrant use of props or set design as absolutely unnecessary.

The monologues are of varying lengths, indeed some are so short you would imagine that the structure would render those characters minor, and yet the separate elements of both the differing points of view offered, and the inclusion of the “quieter” characters in the speeches of others, means that almost every character is given full description and development by the end of the book. Ironically, it could be said that The Brothers manages to make a better attempt at fleshing out characters than many a longer and more linear novel. Here it is impossible not to imagine a director in future seeing it as perfect for the stage, Peirene Press’s description of it as a Shakespearean drama is surely most apt. And it would be noteworthy to include the fact that while you read each person’s point of view, the story never repeats old ground. The book continues to flow forward (accept for the odd flashback), as though the characters had got together beforehand to decide who would narrate each scene.

Moving on to the content itself, there is an interesting thing in the way that Henrik is the person everybody hates, yet he is the only one who can see how the house is falling apart. The way he speaks of it suggests that it is more than simply the house. And indeed there are tensions which it seems no one picks up on besides the individual themselves. Everyone hides everything from everyone else.

Should everyone direct their thoughts to Henrik? There are many times when Sahlberg implies that the reader ought to look at other people more critically, and remember that while Henrik is disliked widely, there are biases at work.

For such a short book, there really are a lot of twists, and you may find yourself wanting to adopt Anna’s period-centric response of putting hands to face in shock. A couple of the twists are more or less obvious from the outset, but it’s almost as if Sahlberg has made them obvious as a sort of compensation for the utter surprise that comes with the out-of-the-blue moments. The family is both closer and more estranged than you think. And the manifestation of their pain can be difficult to read.

Hate and love are two sides of the same coin, and where one party may think they are providing from one side, the other party may think the reverse is true. Such is the case often here. And those who have caused us pain may actually be the ones wanting a relationship where others have given up. Sahlberg’s story may be historical, but there is a great deal that is relevant on an eternal level. Intriguing, mesmerising, upsetting in so many ways, and always surprising, The Brothers proves that length and time are not necessary ingredients in order to take a person on an immense journey.

I received this book for review from Peirene Press.

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