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Book Reviews

Book Review: Elina Hirvonen’s ‘When I Forgot’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This book explores the lingering legacy of childhood trauma with sensitivity and flair.

When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen

Translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson. The book includes a short bio of the translator on the inside cover, which is directly under the author’s bio and is even a few words longer! I am so happy. Well done Portobello books for recognising the translator.

What is it about Nordic literature that is so beautiful and haunting? Careful, considered, and insightful, this book is for everyone who finds it impossible to escape the ghosts of their past.

Synopsis

Anna, the I-narrator, is a semi-functioning adult. She works as a freelance journalist in Helsinki. Her boyfriend, Ian, was once her lecturer in English literature at university (read into that what you will). Anna and Ian both adore Virginia Woolf, and there is a certain stamp of her psychological analysis on the author’s style.

Anna and Ian are both plagued by childhood trauma. Anna’s abusive father is a Lutheran priest, and Ian’s deceased father was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD after the war. Both of their mothers were loving but ineffectual, and failed to save or shield them from the trauma and abuse they experienced. Anna’s brother Joona is mentally ill and has been institutionalised for most his adult life. His breakdowns were most probably a direct result of his father’s physical abuse. Anna has spent most of her life trying to keep the fractured pieces of her family together, being the ‘normal’ one. The novel is a nod to Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past, where the premise is essentially the author eating a madeleine and being confronted with a wave of childhood memories. Anna sits in a cafe procrastinating visiting her brother in intensive care after another suicide attempt. She orders a mocha square and it goes from there.

Highlights

The story is told in short, fractured chapters which skip and jump between then and now, between Ian and Anna’s childhoods, the fictive present and the in-between, the awkward coming-of-age years. Some readers may find this annoying, but I don’t. I have the attention span of a squirrel, and long chapters tend to send me to sleep. I like the page-turning feeling of achievement and multiple opportunities for pee and coffee breaks. I don’t mind a fractured narrative. I like putting the pieces of the puzzle together like a shattered mirror.

This book is mostly cold and sad, haunting and melancholy, like a Finnish winter. Don’t read it if you want to have some pep in your step for the rest of the day. It’s short, at just 180 pages and fairly spaced-out font, so most readers will be able to finish it in a couple of days. I like sad books. They make me feel more human. Having said that, there’s no absolutely devastating sections designed to manipulate your emotions. This book is highly relatable for anyone who has suffered/is suffering from mental illness. Most people have some kind of trauma they usually keep in a locked drawer, and this novel may be cathartic if not triggering.

I have the sneaking suspicion that some of it must be at least semi-autobiographical. Hirvonen is extremely good at getting behind the facade, the veneer we construct day to day. Nobody wants to walk around telling everyone we meet that no, we are not okay. People don’t want to hear your struggle. There’s a pressure to act normal, and shame if we don’t. Most of my anxiety has consistently come from the fear that people will look at me and know my ‘failing’, that I’m not like them. That I had two hours sleep last night, that my palms are sweaty and my heart erratic. That my jaw is clenched and I feel sick with nerves. Everyone expects us to go through the motions of a normal life regardless. Anna struggles, but only Ian knows.

Lowlights

This book is not new, it was first released in Finnish in 2005. Anything written 2002-2010 was steeped in a pervasive post 9/11 existential angst that is simply no longer relevant. I felt Ian’s agonising over the US’s response to 9/11 (Ian is from New York) didn’t ring true and detracted from his personal story. It felt at parts like Hirvonen was shoe-horning politics into the character’s inner lives to keep up with the Zeitgeist. That is all.

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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