I will be honest with you. I don’t like to read a lot of books about depressing subjects. I have enough problems in my life without having books that depress me. Now, of course, books about difficult subjects can be rewarding and not leave you depressed. And I don’t read just “escapist” fiction. It is just that I usually avoid to much darkness in my reading (in fact, all of my cultural choices).
I bring this up because at face value Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot is not the type of book I would normally put on my summer reading list. Here is the publisher’s intro:
An astonishingly assured and compelling debut, When I Forgot explores the relationship between a sister and her brother, the past that they share, and the painful memories that shape their lives forever.
Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been institutionalized when she falters, and in that pause her world splinters in a blazing display of memory and madness, of childhood security treasured and shattered, and of families blighted by psychological trauma—her brother’s and that of her boyfriend’s father, a Vietnam vet. September 11 serves as a backdrop for the story, and the Finnish perspective on America and its politics is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. In Elina Hirvonen’s skillful hands, the grimness is illuminated by firecracker insight and surprising beauty. And, above all, there is hope.
I mean, mental illness, family abuse, Vietnam and IRaq war protests, and the world’s anger at the US? This is not really beach reading.
I know what you are saying: “Kevin, grow up and embrace some culture for Pete’s sake!” As I said, I am just being honest with you. But obviously I did put aside my beach reading instincts and read the book.
This is one of those times where the publisher matters. Tin House has yet to send me a bad book, so I decided to try something I might otherwise not. And it proved to be an interesting read.
It is sometimes hard to pin down what exactly this slim novel is “about.” Memory, 9/11, relationships, the repurcussions of family history, the impact of certain events on the way we see the world, etc. The easy answer is, of course, all of the above.
The thread that ties them all together is the interplay of memory and self; the way we see the world from inside our own head versus “reality.” The question is seems to ask is: “Can you escape the haunting of the past?”
The novel opens in a Helinski cafe where the central character Anna Louhiniitty sis drinking coffee and attempting to read Mrs. Dalloway by Virgina Woolf (or is it Michael Cunningham’s The Hours?). But her mind is unable to focus on the novel, except in tangential ways, and instead she finds herself swept up in a flood of memories and emotions from the past.
Those of her boyfriend, Ian, an American teaching in Finland having left New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. Those surrounding her brother, Joona, who is in a mental facility whose breakdown seems to have been triggered in some way by the towers falling. Those of the struggles of both her and Ian’s trouble family history (Ian’s father came back from Vietnam unable to function and died in a VA facility).
Sitting in the cafe, Anna desperately wants to be a different person with a different history; she wants to somehow break free of these burdonsome memories and be free. But how can she do this without leaving behind the people she loves?
Hirvonen, not surprisingly, doesn’t offer an answer but she captures this struggle and the role of memory in our lives with amazing grace and a crispness, or maybe an electrical current, that jumps off the page.
I was taken with her style from the start. Here’s Anna in the novel’s start describing this complex day:
I can make it. This day.
There’s the smell of sun-warmed dog shit and damp earth. A bent woman in winter boots from the eighties and a child in muddied jeans whose tongue darts out around his ice-cream moustache. There’s the long morning when you don’t have to look at your watch.
There’s the café where you get old-fashioned coffee and thickly iced mocha squares and where you feel like someone’s just told you a secret. There are the clacking trams and the footdragging kids on their way to school and the grey-headed women who prop each other up as they cross the street. There’s the book I got from Ian. There’s Ian, who loves me.
There’s the book.
There’s the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water.
She is both describing the day as it exists but also the day as she wants it to be. She does this and set up the books arc in a page and a half.
I suppose in many ways, the novel structures would be see as unconventional. The narrative jumps around in time and frequently slips between the outside world and Anna’s mental universe. The story is also told through notes and letters from her brother.
But the story is an amazingly quick and powerful read; it pulls you forward and flows almost naturally. This comes from the way Hirvonen seems to have so perfectly captured the way our memories and thoughts flow. People don’t think in a straight line and our memories and emotions are complex, intertwinned, and rarely objective.
There is, however, a depth to the story as well. There are literary references, psychologicalal insights, and political/cultural commentary running throughout the story. There is an anti-war element to the story. Not from the protests that form part of the backdrop, but in the pictures of the veterans that come back in succeeding generations damaged an unable to function. And yet there is a sense in which war is a fact of history that can’t be avoided.
Like all great stories, in my opinion, what you bring to the story changes how you view and interact with it, but it changes the way you see the world.
In the end, the novel leaves you with a bittersweet feeling. The pain and tragedy are still there, and always will be, but there is a hope in knowing that each person can make a difference in the relationships they have in their lives; that in giving yourself to those you love you can change reality. There is a fierce sense of hope that lingers even in Anna’s struggle not to drown in the tragic nature of her family.
When I Forgot is anything but escapist literature. It is deep, dark at times, and serious. But it is also beautiful, touching, and a pleasure to read. It is an example of humane literature; language that both captures something about what it means to be human while at the same time illustrating the incredible creativity and skill that writers can bring to that quitesential human habit: the story.