by Susanna Alakoski
reviewed by Fiona Graham
‘My maternal grandmother worked in a textile mill for fifty years. She never spoke about a single working day in her life.’ This striking introductory statement encapsulates Susanna Alakoski’s motives for focusing on the lives of working-class women in her projected quartet of novels. So many, like her grandmother, saw their working lives as too insignificant to be worth talking about. Workers like the spinners and weavers of Cotton Angel toiled eleven hours a day in the mill before going home to cook, clean and take care of children. Yet their experiences have largely disappeared from history, unless reinstated by socially engaged writers like Alakoski.
The positive side of Alakoski’s grandmother’s silence was that it left the author with a free hand to recreate the life of an imaginary mill worker. But first came extensive research, involving around 140 books, plus articles, documents, museum visits and even recordings of textile mill noise. In the afterword, Alakoski writes that she spent between ten and fifteen years preparing for her ‘Finland book’, which would eventually turn out to be four novels. While she was able in her August Prize-winning novel Svinalängorna (Beyond) to draw on her own experiences of growing up in southern Sweden as the daughter of Finnish immigrants, Alakoski had to deploy different methods to write Bomullsängeln.
The story follows Hilda, born in 1905 in Ostrobothnia (Österbotten) into an extended farming family. Fatherless and with a mentally enfeebled mother, Hilda is brought up by old Sanna-täti, a fount of information about everything from the Kalevala (the Finnish national epic) to curing home-slaughtered pork in the farm’s sauna. On falling pregnant by a local pastor in her late teens, she is cast out, loses her inheritance, and has to seek work as a maid on another, much poorer farm, where her newborn child dies. Her workmate Helli, as rebellious as Hilda is mild and unassuming, eventually persuades her to migrate to the coastal city of Vaasa, where the cotton mill has plenty of jobs and, rumour has it, you can even eat cake in a konditori or see moving pictures. In Vaasa, Hilda will marry a fellow mill-hand, have two children and lose her husband in an industrial accident, while Helli will remain single, so she can devote herself to the workers’ cause. All this takes place against the background of the declaration of Finland’s independence from Russia (1917), the Finnish Civil War (1918), the not-so-roaring twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II, in which Finland fought against the Soviet Union.
Between Hilda and Helli’s back-breaking stint as farm maids and their move to the city, Alakoski interpolates the story of the cotton mill’s early days, from the 1850s to the mid-1870s. This historical excursus is related mainly from the point of view of industrialist August Alexander Levón, using correspondence and diary entries.
By the end of the novel, working conditions at the mill are still harsh, with workers now being driven to work ever faster and more efficiently. There are, however, some compensations: workers can enjoy collective jaunts to other Finnish cities and new leisure activities. Now in her early fifties, Hilda is old before her time. Her son Jonni and his wife emigrate to Sweden to take up factory jobs, while Hilda takes care of their infant son. Daughter Greta (named after Garbo) has rejected the mill-worker’s life for a job in domestic service. In the novel’s final scene, when the mill-workers are celebrating the mill’s centenary, she announces her plan to move to Stockholm, as a first step on her way to London and wider horizons.
Alakoski’s literary project is an ambitious one. It is no easy task to retain the reader’s interest throughout a long novel focusing mainly on the life of a mild-mannered, somewhat submissive person like Hilda. Helli, the socialist firebrand whose Red father was imprisoned by the White side in the Finnish Civil War, is a stronger and perhaps more obviously sympathetic character, but she serves mainly as a foil to her lifelong friend Hilda. The theme of friendship, kindness and solidarity between women, not something widely celebrated in our culture, is central to the novel.
Alakoski excels particularly in her depiction of shared work. The first part of the novel, set in Hilda’s family farm and the one where she takes refuge when about to give birth, impressed this reader with the sheer sisu of Finnish farm workers: if the women are not scrubbing floors, milking cows, feeding chickens, weeding, breaking the soil for sowing, planting or harvesting potatoes, collecting in hay, doing the laundry in stream water or hanging it out to dry on trees, it is only because they have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
It is arguably fitting, in a novel centring on working-class struggles, that the communities depicted almost become characters themselves. This applies both to the farms and to the cotton mill, around which its workers’ lives revolve. Though all are harsh environments in many ways, they nonetheless provide a sense of fellow-feeling, of community. The mill-hands form a choir, go to the sauna together, organise outings and celebrations. Alakoski’s portrayal of a bygone way of life, whether agrarian or industrial, is convincing and moving. It will be interesting to see how she tackles working-class life under late capitalism – so often subject to alienation and atomisation – in the latter part of this project.
Natur & Kultur, 2019
Foreign rights: Anna Frankl, Nordin Agency
A full sample in English is available from the agent.
Londonflickan (The London Girl), the second novel in the quartet, came out in September 2021. An extract from Londonflickan, translated by Kira Josefsson, appears elsewhere in SBR 2021:2.