Walking on ice

Issue 3/2005 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Valon reunalla (‘At the edge of light’, Teos 2005), the second novel by Maria Peura (born 1970), is an evocation of a small village in Lapland in the mid-1970s. The novel tells the story of the young Ristiina; it is divided into chapters each with its own title, thus underscoring the non-linearity of the narration and giving space to different people, events and environments.

The villagers, the highly respected and the strange, and the borders of the village, concrete and imaginary, surround Ristiina completely; eventually she manages to wriggle free of their grip. The novel begins with the words: ‘Don’t walk on the ice, they used to say, always. Ice can give way, crack open, you’ll fall in and drown. So they always said, that’s why we had to go. There was nowhere else to go.’

Maria Peura’s debut novel, On rakkautes ääretön (‘Boundless is thy love’, 2001), was the focus of an exceptional amount of attention: it is a refined and beautifully written story, but what became a topic of conversation was its subject matter – incest told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl. The author was forced to defend her choice of material (and the non-autobiographical nature of the story). The novel was shortlisted for the Finlandia Literature Prize in 2001. Peura has studied dramaturgy and has also written a number of plays and a collection of poetry for children.

In their village Ristiina’s father is an important man, but at home he is a loser, a cheat, plagued by her mother’s jealousy and her mysterious illness. Although Ristiina’s parents are present, they are still on the periphery, the world of teenagers being so confined to their own bodies and minds, and that territory gradually widens to encompass forbidden areas – such as a high-rise apartment block: in the village’s social hierarchy these flats are considered a bad place.

‘There’s drunks and mental folk living there, that’s why you can’t go in.’ Ristiina, naturally, will visit the flats because her boyfriend Kari lives there. Their teacher describes him as ‘backward, psychopathic.’

This story about growing up is not sensationally original, but Peura very skilfully draws the realistic narration into the realms of absurd comedy; there is a poetic intensity to the language. Comedy often appears most strongly in the dialogues written in the vivid, laconic dialect of northern Finland.

Here, the body, sexuality and fantasies about death go hand in hand. A group of girls discuss the best way to die: on the one hand, walking along the rail track or lying down between the tracks is playing with death, but naturally it is also bound up with a yearning for freedom. The tracks lead away from the village towards independence, towards the light.

Ristiina is a big girl, and Kari likes that: ‘Fuck, Ristiina, you’ve got big thighs.’ Even her father is amazed at how much she eats. Perhaps it is to be expected that there later follows a time when Ristiina’s life includes neither Kari nor eating. ‘I read about a man who stopped eating and who was cured from all his complaints. Like a plant he lived on only water and light.’

In an essay about her northern home town, Pello, Maria Peura has written: ‘I do not believe it is possible to return to the place of your birth. Returning to your roots is enough.’

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