Cosmic and comic

Issue 3/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Sabine Forsblom’s first novel Maskrosguden (‘The dandelion god’; Söderströms, 2004) is compulsive reading, an intelligent, action-packed family chronicle, whose secretive but vulnerable female narrator has a strong sense of both the tragic and the comic in daily life and, no less important, a clear analytical understanding of historical events.

Maskrosguden is unusual among recent novels in being firmly rooted in the history of the Swedish-speaking working class in Finland. Finland is a bilingual country that contains a small but influential Swedish-speaking community mainly concentrated in Helsinki and on and around the western and southern coasts. The Swedish-speaking working class was mainly concerned with farming and fishing but, like much of the rest of the country, it was overtaken in the 20th century by rapid industrialisation. This development is one of the themes in Sabine Forsblom’s novel, which is set in the small picturesque coastal town of Borgå, fifty kilometres east of Helsinki. Today Borgå is a tourist attraction, but it was once the home of ordinary folk whose humble lives involved a constant battle for survival and integrity amid harsh working conditions.

In this first novel, Sabine Forsblom (born 1961) has made good use of her long experience as a talented documentary film-maker. She knows how to get inside the skins of people of all kinds and give them voices, bodies and feelings. She has an equally strong feeling for the relationship between places and the lives of the people who live in them. The narrator’s maternal grandmother’s home is full of memories of war and lost love, while life in her father’s parents, working-class home revolves round a sawmill and a mythical stately home.

The action also takes in the 1950s Helsinki of her father’s youth, with its pompous banks and its places of pleasure and entertainment and the wool business where he worked at the time. With her film-maker’s eye and strong feeling for the burlesque and comic she gives us a panorama of twentieth-century Finland and the fumbling attempts of ordinary people in a small town to adjust to rapid industrialisation. She takes a passionate and microscopic interest in the details of individual lives, but is no less concerned with the cosmic loneliness that results when the whirlpool of ‘progress’, hurls people into circumstances in which they do not feel at home.

Such people are like Moses among the bulrushes, or the author Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe – a fictitious solitary Egyptian from the 13th century BC in his 1940s novel The Egyptian – or the first human astronauts. Life is not easy for them, but they are survivors. Fanciful and inventive, sometimes resigned to their fate and sometimes protesting, they narrate their way through life.

In racy and expressive local dialect, Sabine Forsblom has conjured up a world in which Arundhati Roy meets Woody Allen and Mika Waltari. It is a very long time since reading about the twentieth century made me laugh so much. But I cried, too.

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