A Thrilling, Chilling New Novel from Finland

when-i-forgot-coverThe problem with Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot is finding a place to stop. The narrative of this slender, lightning-fast Finnish novel, the most internationally successful debut novel in Finnish history, propels you along without the hint of a stopping point, one startling, violent or surprising scene feeding directly into another, or story within story unfolding accordion-style, part now, part later, with fragments of other stories unraveling in between. Hirvonen always gives you the feeling that everything will make sense in just a couple pages, and so the reader keeps turning them, faster and faster, scrambling breathlessly to put together all the intriguing narrative chunks.

Anna is relating the story, she feels about college student age, and is telling it to her professor, Ian, with whom she’s having an affair. Ian is obsessed with Virginia Woolf, had an American father who went crazy in the Vietnam War, and wants Anna to write about the most troubling thing that ever happened to her. She’s trying to tell us that story, but it’s entangled in several other stories, all swirling around several moments in her life of severe parental violence.

Anna has a brother two years older, Joona, who seems mentally limited in some way. When their father buys a used hearse, insists on taking the family for a reckless ride, and gets in an accident, putting their mother in the hospital, Joona corrects his father’s testament that God was watching over them by insisting that instead the devil got into his father and made him do it. The violent, bloody beating that follows had this reader bouncing in his armchair and flinching in horror. Not until after that does Anna let us know her father was the pastor of their church.

elina-hirvonen-trueThe night before Christmas Eve her brother convinces his sister to make tea out of hash, brother and sister both get deliriously high, and another scene of family mayhem ensues when father comes home and finds them laughing on the floor. Yikes, these scenes are brutal. A father punching his son in the face and kicking him when he’s down. And then the son doing the same to his father.

The reader is warned several times that something terrible is going to happen on Christmas Eve, and on page 75, when I finally turned out my bedlight and made myself get some sleep, it still hasn’t happened yet, but Anna is afraid to go inside the house and has fallen asleep outside in the snow. Wake up, Anna! I dread finding out what is happening inside their house. I think it’s going to be awful. Joona is in there.

What likes ahead? I shudder to think. But I’m dying to know.

Okay, I swore I’d write this blog before I let myself read any father, this is long enough, I’ve got to find out what happened on Christmas Eve, and I only have about twenty minutes before I need to run for my bus this morning. Back to my book!

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

2 Comments on "A Thrilling, Chilling New Novel from Finland"

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  1. nancilynn@hotmail.com' Nanci McCloskey says:

    What a lovely review, but who is the woman in the photograph?

  2. bamandia@impax.com' Beth Anne Mandia says:

    I truly enjoyed this book. I thought this book was very well written, well developed characters and a very thoughtful story about family relationships with an underlying theme of post 9/11 reactions in a foreign country.

    the struggle of the main character dealing with the mental insanity/breakdown of her brother looms over the entire novel (novella?), creeping up in every memory…and weaving into every other story that is told.

    I would definitely read a second novel by this up and coming author.

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