by Ulla-Lena Lundberg
reviewed by Sarah Death
An atmospheric novel set on the fictional island of Ör, off Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s native Åland Islands, finds this seasoned and much-lauded writer on top form. Lundberg revealed in a recent interview that she has no memories of her father and yet has been carrying the events of his life in her head for sixty years. Now they have demanded to be told and the result is impeccable storytelling on an epic scale, bringing together many threads from the rest of her work.
Young, almost fully qualified vicar Petter Kummel and his wife Mona, characters first introduced in Lundberg’s Marsipansoldaten (The Marzipan Soldier, 2001) move to a parish of scattered islands soon after the end of World War Two, as rationing and shortages are starting to ease. They have to contend with their physical surroundings as well as the ingrained attitudes of the local community, where old rivalries threaten to wear down their resilience and goodwill, but they gradually find friendship, support and respect, sometimes in unexpected quarters.
Mona is a competent and no-nonsense woman from a farming background and not only gets their new home in order but also tends their animals and crops while fulfilling her parish responsibilities, working on through her second pregnancy. Her husband has to minister to his far-flung flock, and often fails to find time for his domestic and parental responsibilities or to study for his important exam. For pastoral advice he has to rely on telephone calls to a slightly senior colleague on another island. And as if there was not enough to do, Petter and Mona have to accommodate an influx of family visitors who take their hospitality for granted every summer.
Though the young couple is always at the heart of the story, the reader is admitted to the thoughts of a whole series of characters – and there is quite a gallery of them. One of the most memorable is the postman, Anton, boatborne in summer and reliant on ice that can bear him in winter, a fervent believer in spirits who help him read the weather. For the islanders, Christian and pagan traditions are intertwined, but they bow above all to the changing seasons. The fisher-folk are reluctant farmers and haymakers, always happier in their boats, and their new pastor finds that attendance at church services is entirely dependent on the fishing calendar. When the congregation does put in an appearance, it much prefers singing to praying.
Lundberg evokes a world of choir practice, coffee parties, seal hunting and two little girls bundled up like parcels against the icy blasts penetrating the wooden walls of the vicarage. There is a captivating sense of place in the treeless, windswept islands where the ice is actually a force for social cohesion because it is so much easier to move around and visit each other when the sea freezes, but that ice is also treacherous. This is an environment in which a moment’s lapse in concentration can prove fatal, even if familiar lights are beckoning you home through the darkness.
In places I was reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s parental story Best Intentions, but Is certainly cannot be termed a dour novel. There is humour and warmth, and even the occasional touch of Whisky Galore! The pace drops slightly as we are filled in on the theological influences of Petter’s student days, and the story of the guilt-racked local midwife who had to leave her young son behind in Russia never quite finds the space to develop. But with these minor caveats, this is a gloriously engrossing and panoramic novel, very hard to put down.