by Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo
reviewed by Claire Dickenson
As one of the first releases from Förlaget, the new Finland-Swedish publishing house, Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo’s In Transit has unsurprisingly garnered plenty of generally positive attention in the Finland-Swedish press and blogosphere. Founded somewhat controversially in 2015 by Sophia Jansson, niece of Tove Jansson and current creative director of Moomin Characters Oy Ltd, Förlaget was seen by many as breaking Schildts & Söderströms’ hold over Finland-Swedish literature. Jansson, accompanied by several big names from a variety of Finnish publishing houses, persuaded many of Schildts & Söderströms’ prominent authors, including Maria Turtschaninoff, Monika Fagerholm and Finlandia Prize- winning Ulla-Lena Lundberg,to jump ship and test the waters with its new rival.
Taivassalo’s works span drama and prose, but always with a poetic touch, and In Transit is no exception. At almost 500 pages, the novel takes a little time to get going and even when in full flow takes a winding, meandering approach, with no detail spared in the flowing, poetic descriptions of the lives and thoughts of its three main characters, often eschewing action in favour of delving deep into an analysis of a particular detail. The book follows the paths of Galadriel, Sem and Vera, three members of the same family with wildly different lives but much in common. Sem’s chapters, written, like the others, in a mixture of first and third person, focus primarily on his contemplations on death, as it draws ever closer, and his youth in rural Finland and Stockholm. Vera, Sem’s sister-in-law, is also often drawn back to her youth, to forbidden and lost love and the paths not taken. In contrast, Galadriel, Sem’s granddaughter, takes full advantage of her youth to make sure she explores every path, travelling around the world at will and creating new relationships – conventional and forbidden – with carefree abandon.
The narrative has a tendency to flit haphazardly between past and present, action and reflection and from character to character. Whilst this is undoubtedly intentional, it can make the already loose plot somewhat difficult to follow at times. The characters take in their stride all manner of major events and phenomena that might warrant entire books of their own – from miscarriage and unfaithfulness to lost love and death – often reflecting on them in a somewhat detached way. In Transit features relatively little dialogue, with thoughts, ponderings and actions providing the bulk of the narrative, meaning that some situations only become clear some time after they are first mentioned, as the character returns to reflect on and replay events in their mind.
Galadriel’s story, in contrast to those of Vera and Sem, takes place primarily outside Finland, offering glances into her life as she travels between Los Angeles, London, Mumbai and Svalbard, and more in between. Seemingly unencumbered by practicalities such as visas, expensive flights and language barriers, she flits between jobs, countries and people at a whim, as she pleases. As with the book in general, the destination is very much secondary to the journey itself, and any supporting characters who appear are liable to disappear without a trace as Galadriel, and to a lesser extent Vera and Sem, lose interest and the story moves on to the next tangent.
For those who prefer their books with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, and with a relatively clear and chronological plot, In Transit may not be the ideal choice. However, those who are willing to surrender to the flow of the narrative, twisting and turning as it goes, and those who prefer their prose deeply descriptive, verging on the poetic, and with a great deal to read between the lines, may find this a rewarding read.
Förlaget (Finland), 2016.
Rights: Rights & Brands.
Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo (b. 1974) has published several novels, worked in theatre, written plays and studied at the Theatre Academy, as well as at the University of Helsinki. Among other prizes, she has been awarded The Runeberg prize (2007), and Finlandspris (2017) for her “unique authorship”, her “novels with unexpected twists” and for “detailed, lyric and impressionistic prose”.