Sunday 22 October 2017

The Iron Age review - Stunning fable by Finnish author

Fiction: The Iron Age, Arja Kajermo, Tramp Press, €10

The Iron Age
The Iron Age

Justine Carbery

Finnish-born cartoonist Arja Kajermo (pronounced Arya Ka-yermo) is something of a magician. She opens her debut novel with 'It was Finland, it was the 1950s but on our farm it could have been the Iron Age.' And whoosh, we are immediately transported to the poverty-stricken Finnish countryside of her youth.

This part coming-of-age, part fairy tale set in post-war Finland is an absolute treat. Slim and pithy, this novel packs a real punch, with a force that is slightly disconcerting. I read it once, then read it again, savouring the text and illustrations equally the second time. Think Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, only bleaker but totally devoid of self-pity. She tells it as it is. No frills, no fuss. Just a wonderful insight into the austere reality of their lives.

The Girl, the unnamed narrator of the story, has to endure meagre meals, a harsh grandmother built 'like a Russian tank', who plaits her hair 'so tightly her eyes were pulled into slits', and hand-me-down boots too small for her tiny feet. Her father, suffering from PTSD, is given to bouts of brutish violence and curious moments of generosity. Her brothers, resourceful yet vulnerable, were hardened smokers by the age of seven and eight and had to ski to school in -30 degrees. The downtrodden mother is kinder but overworked and can offer little comfort. The Girl grows up in this harsh world, ever watchful, listening to local stories and fables.

When The Girl is six, the family moves to Sweden, where the father finds a job in a paper mill, but she finds it difficult to come to grips with the language and decides to stop talking altogether. Mute and lonely, she wryly observes familial and societal life with searing honesty, and a wicked sense of humour.

The illustrations, by the author's niece Susanna Kajermo Törner, mirror the bleakness and strangeness of this fable-like tale.

If you're looking for something a little different, yet insightful and darkly funny, then The Iron Age is one for you.

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