Saturday, 27 January 2018

The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo  {Reviewed by STELLA}
The Iron Age is a charming but needle-sharp novel exploring post-war Finland and the economic and emotional fallout which impacts a family through generations. The semi-autobiographical story takes us into the heart, often a cold heart, of a rural family and their struggle through poverty and migration. The third child, a girl, is our narrator. At three, she has learnt to keep clear of her father who easily rages, is isolated from her mother who is too busy working in the fields and keeping on the right side of her mother-in-law who rules the roost, and is ousted from the company of her two older brothers who are a team that doesn’t need or want a little sister - although they all stick together, hiding behind the stone oven or making themselves scarce when Father loses his temper. The story starts in a fairy-tale manner with woe and misfortune being visited upon the family through their own or others' misconduct. A witch comes a-calling, and when the young girl hides rather than offers her coffee, the error is noted by grandmother: “She sat down heavily.This is bad news, she said, wiping her hands on her apron, bad news indeed.” Grandmother is tough - she oversees the farm and family, brokering no dissent. There are constant fights, with Father announcing he knows best - he’s been to agricultural college - yet he constantly comes unstuck, through his arrogance, unrealistic plans and lack of luck. The solution to the altercations: migration to Sweden. Father travels to find work, leaving Mother with four children and strict instructions. Soon the family, minus the oldest son Tapio who is left with grandmother to keep his father's stake in the family farm, move to Sweden. The second part of the book lays out the life of a migrant family, isolated from wider family and community support, struggling with a different culture and a new language. Our child falls further into herself and the world of tales, hardly a speaker in either Finnish or Swedish. “There was a strange safety in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a very big bomb shelter and looking out at a very angry man. And I was not afraid.” This is a novel about resilience, about three strong women who find their own ways to survive. Grandmother, widowed early in life, fiercely keeps her independence; mother, trying to keep on the right side of her erratic husband, finally and quietly triumphs; and the girl finds refuge in her imagination, words (her own silent ones) and stories. It's a story about a country that lost a war and was humiliated by history. A story about the far-reaching shadows of war that stretch beyond carnage on the battlefield into the hearts and daily lives of generations of families. Delightfully illustrated by the author's niece, Susanna Kajermo Törner, this novel is deceptively simple, insightful, and says more in its few pages than many award-winning magnum opuses about the impact of war and the resultant sense of disconnection, either personal or political. Published by the excellent small Irish publisher Tramp Press, it has been winning accolades and was recently long-listed for the prestigious Republic of Consciousness Prize.  

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