The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

19356442Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Finnish by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah. Peirene Press, 2012. Originally published 2010. 112 pgs. Library copy.

Two brothers, Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposite sides of the war between Sweden and Russia in 1809 return to their small, family farm in the newly autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland. Both men lay claim to the mantel of “master” of the farm; both men must confront the olds wounds and animosity they carry towards one another. (Namely, that Erik married the woman Henrik had his sights on.)

As with all Peirene Press titles, Sahlberg compacts a lengthy epic into a short novella that can be read in two hours. For some titles, this compaction works well, highlighting a strong message without sacrificing characterization or intrigue. For others, the shortened length leaves me feeling distant from the characters, unable to really get to know them before the story ends.

Unfortunately, Sahlberg’s title falls into the latter category for me. Henrik and Erik felt interchangeable; without the labels identifying the speaker above each section, I likely would have misidentified the speaker as the opposite brother. Only the farmhand and the boys’ mother provided distinctive voices.

And the big revelation at the end about their mother? Hmm, not as impactful as the author probably intended because the narrators’ voices lacked emotion. But it certainly explains why the publisher’s description calls this “a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland”. The setting, though, was beautiful. The descriptions of the snow and wind induced shivers as I read this over my lunch break; it was just that vivid.

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