As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), which is published by Tramp Press.
Tramp Press is a small Irish publisher which aims
to find, nuture and publish exceptional literary talent and … is committed to finding only the best and most deserving books, by new and established writers
Its greatest success to date has been Mike McCormack’s 2016 Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones (which was Booker longlisted on its subsequent publication by a UK publisher). More recently Sara Baume’s A Line Made Walking has been shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmith Prize, following on from her wonderful debut novel.
Arja Kajermo is a cartoonist – born in Finland, raised in Sweden, and living in Ireland. The Iron Age, her debut novel was based on notes for a graphic novel, and was then written as a short story which was a finalist for the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award (won by Sara Baume) before being developed into this short novel/novella.
The book is narrated by a girl, growing up in the first half of the book in rural poverty in Finland in the 1950s, the youngest in a family of four – her father, injured in the defeat in the Continuation War of 1941-1944 and seemingly suffering from PTSD.
“It’s the war” [her mother] said father’s nerves are shot. It was from all the bad things he had seen and been through
He struggles to find employment to feed and clothe his family and ends up returning repeatedly to the family farm where he struggles with his widowed mother who owns it
Grandmother was an angry woman. She was angry with father most days ….. But most of all she was angry with Grandfather because he was dead
and in an increasingly bitter marriage.
Father was always telling mother to shut up. He had married her for her good looks and plucky attitude. Then he set to trying his damnedest to destroy both the looks and the attitude
Eventually he decides that his family should move to Sweden (minus his oldest son, who he unsuccessfully plans to inherit the family farm on the death of his other relatives).
But we bought our war with us. The shrapnel that had gone into Father’s legs, in 1944 in the painful retreat when the war was lost, had somehow worked its way into his children. Each of us carried a shard of that iron in our hearts. We would never be at peace. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.
The second half of the book chronicles the start of the family’s life in Sweden – which in many ways takes an even darker turn. The family struggle between Father’s insistence that they assimilate and yet that they also keep their proud martial Finnish identity amongst the peace loving socialist Swedes. Further, it is often their Father who draws the most attention to their foreignness (for example his Finnish dress making him look like a Nazi).
I felt that the family’s struggles to maintain this dual identity while also not drawing attention to themselves could serve as a metaphor for the difficult path of neutrality that Finland navigated after the World War.
They struggle even more with language
We were now what mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.
The narrator’s reaction both to her father’s continuing anger and the ummikko issue is a two fold withdrawal. She stops speaking altogether and draws into herself
There was a strange safety net in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my own eyes.
and further escapes into the world of books.
I did not just read books. I lived the stories in the books
In particular she escapes into the world of the Little Mermaid – identifying with the sacrifices that the Mermaid made to live with her prince
If you leave your true home you have to give something up. I had traded in my tongue too but I had got nothing for it
but ultimately rejecting the Mermaid’s choice and instead fantasising that she stays underwater in a mer-Kingdom where the bitterness of her father, the choices and sacrifices her family have made, the long lasting effects of war, all play no part, and are replaced by calmness, peace and togetherness.
Under the water everyone can stay together and nobody has to go away
In a devastating ending to the book she opens her eyes during one such fantasy and realises
I had no tail
The book is atmospherically illustrated by the author’s niece – Susanna Kajermo – in a series of black and white pencil drawings.
The illustrator Susanna has commented that
I had heard several of the anecdotes in it, told in various ways, by my Dad when I grew up. I have always been interested in the way people tell or remember things …… … my art often relates to childhood and storytelling ….. Arja gave me some old photographs for inspiration, and I also had my Dad’s, rather thin photo album to look at … I tried to make illustrations that would work with the text but also as separate pictures that could somehow tell a story of their own … I appreciate pictures that have both seriousness or a sort of darkness, combined with humour or absurdity in them. That is something I strive for in my art. Arja’s novel has all of those components and so I had a really good time working with it
And this quote picks up many of the themes of the book: its concentration on storytelling and remembrance – family stories and legends, the war stories that the narrator’s Father uses to draw on his lessons for life, the interpretation of dreams, constant reminiscing on those that fell in the Wars, Finnish folklore particularly around a witch like figure, the stories in which the narrator increasingly takes refuge; the illustrations which while clearly relating to the story often have a deeper dark fairy tale element (for example – a dinosaur skull buried under the roots of a tree, a ghost figure on a sled); the juxtaposition of the darkness of much of the life of the narrator with the absurd incidents that occur and the dry humour with which she relates them.
Overall this is a simple book but one with surprising depth.
You may read my review of The Iron Age here.
Coming tomorrow, an interview with the publisher of this book.
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