Book review - The Brothers

Short fiction can still tackle weighty subjects as Peirene Press prove with this dark tale from Finland. Peirene, set up by Meike Ziervogel in 2010, specialise in publishing European novellas in translation. Its books are always under 200 pages, “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. They also follow specific themes and this year’s series is grouped under the umbrella “The Small Epic”.

Set in 19th century Finland, Asko Sahlberg’s atmospheric novel pits two brothers against one another and deals with themes of alienation, love, loss and betrayal. Henrik and Erik fought on opposing sides of the war that in 1809 left Finland under the rule of the Russian Empire. At the novel’s start, Henrik’s unexpected return to the farm, now run by his brother, causes unspoken resentments and sibling rivalries to be reignited. Confrontation becomes inevitable.

The story unfolds through multiple perspectives, reminiscent of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. All the characters fail to communicate directly with one another leading to misunderstandings and distrust. It is through their inner monologues or others’ observations that we learn of their secret passions and bitter resentments. The boys’ mother, the Old Mistress, presides over everything with sardonic humour and wrestles with her own demons.

The most authoritative voice is that of the elderly farmhand who has watched the two brothers mature and grow apart. As he wryly observes: “You say something when you mean something completely different, or at least more.” The farmhand recalls how Henrik, on the cusp of adulthood, had set his heart on winning a neighbour’s horse. This quickly turned to obsession and Henrik’s desire to own the black stallion becomes emblematic of his need to break free and assert his independence. For the farmhand, the horse represents something far more sinister – “the beast smelt of war”. When Henrik is denied the horse and discovers that Anna, the woman he had set his heart on, prefers his brother Erik, he leaves the farm travelling to Stockholm, before settling in St Petersburg.

Penniless and lonely, he joins the army unaware that war is looming: “It never occurred to me that this godforsaken land would drive great rulers mad.” Now Henrik is back, his love for Anna undiminished, and events come to a head when the brothers learn that their wily cousin, Mauri, whom the family took in when he was orphaned, has acquired the deeds to the farm.

Sahlberg demonstrates an impressive eye for detail. However minor his characters, from the housemaid to the Crown Bailiff, they all have a distinctive voice and their role to play in the brothers’ story. Sahlberg is also adept at building emotional intensity with just a few brushstrokes. Despite its short length, The Brothers is a powerful piece of prose lucidly translated by mother-and-daughter team, Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.

Originally published in The Tablet