by Maria Turtschaninoff
reviewed by Margaret Dahlström
Maria Turtschaninoff has published a number of highly acclaimed and widely translated novels for young adults, and has received several literary prizes for them in Sweden and Finland. Inherited Land is her first adult novel. It was awarded the prestigious Swedish Yle Literature Prize for the best Finland-Swedish novel of 2022, and seems certain to become a classic.
The land of the title is farmland in western Finland, granted to Matts Mattsson Rask in recognition of his service as a soldier. The farm is known as Nevabacka, and Matts, following local custom, takes this as his family name. The narrative follows the farm through generations of the Nevabacka family, from Matts in the seventeenth century to Stina in the twenty-first. There are five sections to the work – excluding the introduction and epilogue – named by century; the sections are divided into several chapters, each focusing on an individual member of the family line.
Matts Nevabacka has no wife when he returns from war and settles on his farm. He knows of the elusive people who live in the marshland and the trolls in the forest, and he generally respects the territory of these groups. He is warned off when he ventures too far into the marsh, but he meets a woman there and forms a brief relationship, which results in a son. She brings the boy for Matts to raise, on condition that he leave the marsh undisturbed. Matts gives his word, and keeps it for years, but eventually decides he and his son will work the forbidden land. Three warnings are delivered through their dreams, and when Matts ignores these, his son is taken from him and they never meet again. There is an heir, though, because long after his father's death Henric returns from the marsh, drawn by the singing of a village woman. They have children, and the Nevabacka family line is assured.
Characteristics of folktale and myth abound in this early section, in addition to the mysterious and magical folk of the marsh and forest. Things happen in threes (such as the three warnings to Matts); the firstborn is taken, in punishment for a broken promise; Henric is lured 'as though spellbound' by Estrid’s singing. Superstitions continue for generations. The appearance of a particular bird brings a warning of death; spitting into a handkerchief and burying it in a graveyard is a safeguard against pregnancy.
But times change, superstitions fade, standards of living improve. The good years are punctuated by times of war, famine and plague, but overall the farm prospers; extra land is purchased, stock acquired, a farmhand employed. The surrounding society alters too, and some of the family move to the city to work, or emigrate to the New World. Occasionally, an historical reference can position a character more precisely in his or her century, such as a reference to world war.
One striking change over the years is the attitude towards the land. Initially it is crucial to life itself, supporting generations of the family. Through the decades of industrialisation, many move away for better prospects, and eventually the reader meets Stina in the late twentieth century, a young teen visiting from the city, who feels alienated from Nevabacka. Country life wins her over, and she begins to appreciate the family bond with the land. But when, in the early twenty-first century, a childless aunt bequeaths Nevabacka to Stina, she reflects that ownership may become a burden, and the family’s link to the land is threatened.
The opening section and an epilogue are in a free verse form, but the body of the narrative is prose in the third person. There are some variations in the style: for example Alina, at the end of the nineteenth century, is shown through her letters to her friend (or more than friend) Charlotte. Young Stina, at the end of the twentieth century, keeps a journal, and the chapter consists of her entries during her summer at Nevabacka. When the focal character is a child, the language and style convey a naïve perception. But such variations reflect the different characters, and do not impact the flow of the narrative.
With no protagonist, but a large cast of characters, the reader does not become much invested in individuals. But Turtschaninoff portrays each personality with such skill and sensitivity that the reader readily moves with the narrative from one generation to the next. Each one is a product of their time as well as of the family. Inevitably some individuals are more likeable than others, but overall this is a very engaging family and a captivating narrative.
Förlaget, Finland, 2022
Foreign Rights: Elina Ahlbäck Agency
Maria Turtschaninoff is a two-time winner of the Society of Swedish Literature Prize, a nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and winner of the 2014 Finlandia Junior Prize. Her Red Abbey Chronicles YA trilogy has been sold into 30 languages. Reviews of her Red Abbey Chronicles trilogy have been featured in previous issues of SBR, and a translated excerpt from Underfors (tr. Agnes Broomé) was included in SBR's 2013 special issue on literature from Finland.