(The Bear Hunter’s Daughters)
by Anneli Jordahl
reviewed by Kathy Saranpa
Anneli Jordahl makes no secret of the fact that her story of seven sisters, The Bear Hunter’s Daughters, uses a classic Finnish novel as her point of departure: Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers. This tale of orphaned boys who chafe at social order, leave to live in freedom in the forest, fail miserably and, chastened, return to society like prodigal sons is, however, a far lighter read than Jordahl’s brilliant gloss on it.
This is because the ultimate message The Bear Hunter’s Daughters conveys is that there is no happy end for women in a world dominated by men, neither in the wilderness nor in society. One of the first clues to this message is the sisters’ admiration of a painting hanging in their family home. It portrays Aino, a young woman from the Finnish epic Kalevala who chooses suicide over marriage to a man forced on her by her brother. As the story unfolds, we realize that the bear hunter has indoctrinated his daughters into a cult in which he is the leader. Its rules are to learn to distrust modern society, to live outside it (preferably far away from other humans), and to stick together. The problem is that this is not the 1800s – there is no way to escape society in 21st century Finland, and what the father does is to make his daughters unfit for living in it. Only two ever attend any school at all, and only briefly, so only two can read. They haven’t learned basic hygiene, so they smell like ‘pine sap, sweat and unwashed genitals’. And the father has failed to appreciate that they cannot possibly stick together – the sisters have vastly different temperaments and relationships to each other. The bear hunter’s male gaze fails to acknowledge individuality in his female offspring.
The girls’ mother, Louhi (another Kalevala reference: the name of an evil witch), is ignored by her husband and hated by her daughters to the same extent as they adore their father. She’s a background character, and we only learn later that she used to be an accomplished storyteller.
According to their father’s wishes, the girls move into the wilderness once both parents have died. They survive one summer there thanks to the hunting prowess of some of the sisters; six months later, the remaining sisters (one dies meanwhile) are rescued by helicopter after almost perishing in a record-cold winter. Their return to society sounds no notes of reconciliation. The eldest, Johanna, is institutionalized because of her violent behaviour. The rest of the daughters begin to meet with a social worker and start to put together a new life. But the reader is left with the sense that they will never integrate. Two move to a farm in the woods where they continue a modified version of their former life, bringing pelts to market and living in relative freedom – but also continued primitive standards. Three move back to their parents’ home, now repaired and restored as a museum to their father and uncle (who had become famous by telling his sister’s stories). None of them plan to marry or have children. The biggest surprise – or perhaps not, given the notion of a society toxic to women – is Johanna’s fate: she gets in the lap of her psychiatrist at their last session and ends up marrying him; she cuts off all contact with her siblings. This is the most heart-breaking, but perhaps most predictable image of the book: the former wild huntress exchanges father figures, ending up with a man who’s crossed his professional boundaries instead of protecting and nurturing her to full health. She ends up a kind of princess in a suburban castle where the roses, the only vestige of nature, are cared for by another person.
This book is superbly insightful, strongly worded and rightfully disturbing. Jordahl’s language is masterful, musty and well-suited to the dark theme. The topicality of The Bear Hunter’s Daughters is undeniable as women struggle for their rights all over the globe. The pain and worry that mothers feel about their daughters – and perhaps one reason the sisters opt never to have children – are mirrored in the final words of this book: ‘Doomed to give birth to daughters.’
Björnjägarens döttrar: en berättelse om sju systrar
Foreign rights: Catherine Mörk, Norstedts Agency
Nominated for the August Prize 2022
Anneli Jordahl’s previous novel, Som hundarna i Lafayette Park (Like the Dogs in Lafayette Park) was reviewed by Nichola Smalley in SBR 2021:2. An excerpt translated by Kate Lambert also featured in the same issue.