First things first, I want to publicly state my gratitude to Orange Pekoe for hosting a giveaway a year ago in which I was fortunate enough to win this wonderful copy of ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg. Pierene, with their focus on bringing translated literature to the British public are a publishing house after my own heart; they’ve never let me down in the past, and ‘The Brothers’ is yet another example of the wonderful books they are making available to English-language readers.
Published as a ‘small epic,’ ‘The Brothers’ is very short, a fact I was initially very pleased to note because the whole book is written in the present tense (a stylistic choice I’ve never enjoyed much past the hundred page mark). As promised however, it packs all the passion and character development of a much longer saga into one climactic evening in a lonely snowed-in farm. The two brothers in the title are bitter enemies, but it soon becomes clear that their hatred is only one of the fraught relationships that isolate these few souls who live so far from society.
On one level, this book is about hierarchies and finding one’s place, as the put-upon poor relation makes amply clear when he attempts to bring his own bitterness to bear on the already fragmented family. On another level it is about the most personal experiences of loss and resignation. The main characters have not lived on the farm their whole lives, and for each it symbolises a level of compromise and impotence against the historic events happening beyond the snowy forest. Running through these social and realist themes are hints of a wider, mythological underpinning, as if these characters can no longer be bound by conventional story telling or concerns.
‘The Brothers’ is a wonderful winter read, chilling, magical and with enough of the real world to keep you thinking afterwards. I’m not sure I’ve come to terms with everything about the book (especially the troubling presentation of women and servants), but then I’m not sure it’s the place of literature to give us all the answers – some should be arrived at after deep reflection during a long winter night.