The Winter War* follows a liberal, middle-class professional Scandinavian couple and their two adult daughters over the course of one winter. While this is a period of change for the family, the pleasure of this novel is less in its plot than in its beautifully drawn characters* and searing sardonic wit*.
Max Paul is a Finland-Swede*, a sociologist approaching sixty, living off his reputation as a public intellectual, given an ego-boost when a former student turned journalist requests an interview:
One important criteria for all research was that it had to be possible to explain the basic ideas in a simple manner. A good doctoral dissertation could be comprehensively summarised over lunch. Taking this to extremes: a good researcher should, in principle, be able to speak with such enthusiasm that his words could function as a series of pick-up lines. (p74)
His wife feels ground down by his emotional neglect and burnt out at work in the human resources department of the Helsinki health service:
Their elder daughter, Helen, a secondary school teacher with two young children, has little time or energy for herself or her marriage, while the younger daughter, Eva, is feeling adrift at art school in London during the time of the Occupy movement*:
At what age did people become content with their lives? At ififty? In that case, Eva longed to be fifty. She longed to feel carefree and not have to bear this ever-present sense of shame because she didn’t measure up, because she was in somebody else’s debt. (p124)
In a novel I came to love, I was surprised, in retrospect, that took me a few chapters to settle into it. I suspect the opening line might be responsible:
The first mistake that Max and Katriina made that winter – and they would make many mistakes before their divorce – was to deep-freeze their grandchildren’s hamster. (p3)
I was fine with the foreshadowing of the divorce, but the hamster led me to expect more of a farce than the understated and subtle humour I actually relished. I especially enjoyed how the characters were shown at work* and at their studies, as well as in the home. Perhaps it won’t seem so amusing out of context but, in the midst of a description of the absurdity of the redesign of the health care system and the omnipotence of IT departments, this had me laughing out loud:
He’d been on the job for little more than two months, but he was already highly regarded by the whole staff, since he was the only one who knew how to work the projector in the meeting room. (p59)
The Winter War was first published in Swedish. The English translation* by Tiina Nunnally is published by Serpent’s Tail who kindly furnished me with a review copy. For the author’s take on the starred* issues and other aspects of this novel, see the annethology interview with Philip Teir.
You’ve gone to India, like a typical middle-class wanker and now that you’re back you think you’re bloody Gandhi. Not even that! At least he had political purpose! Tell me one good thing that comes from this kind of passive spirituality. Moved beyond consciousness, have you? You’re part of some greater bloody whole? (p176)
While I enjoyed this novel, it took me a little while to accept the omniscient narrator foreshadowing future events in an extremely direct way, although perhaps preferable to the alternative presenting the childhoods of two characters and leaving the reader pondering what might be the connection. I also found the forty-four pages of letters between the couple less engaging than the almost 100 that preceded them. I was also a little perplexed by the shape of the narrative: presented as “the story of two young people who fall in love – and then life gets in the way”, it was the insights into the mind of a third character that held my interest.
Since early childhood, Ursula has been the companion and confidant of her maternal grandmother, who has shared the north-facing family home abutting the urban motorway since the girl was a toddler. Ursula has grown up with Ganny Mary’s stories about her Lancashire childhood and her grumbles about ending up living in a detested house with a detested son-in-law in a detested city (her constant iterations – serving only to render her more enraged – testament to the fact that giving voice to one’s dissatisfactions is no substitute for therapy). But as the novel progresses we see the similarities in the trajectories of these women two generations apart: both have experienced parental neglect (Ursula’s mother being more committed to antinuclear protests than attending to her children); both are witness to the potentially damaging effects of overzealous religion (Ganny Mary having suffered, as a girl, from a harsh regime following her mother’s conversion to the Plymouth Brethren; Ursula suffering some kind of mental and physical breakdown from an overdose of meditation in a Himalayan monastery).
The Lightning Tree is about spirituality, the power of adolescent attachments, the enigma of identity and different forms of love across generations. Thanks to Faber and Faber for my review copy. For other novels on these themes, see my reviews of In Search of Solace, A Song for Issy Bradley and The Virgins.
Apologies for the lengthy post – if you’ve read this far, or even if you haven’t, I’d love to know your views.