“The apparent simplicity of Kajermo’s style belies the force her story carries” – The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo

This pithy novel – you might hear it called a ‘novella’, but that’s a term that raises my hackles; give the book its due credit and class it with the grown-ups – rose out of Kajermo’s story of the same name that was shortlisted for Ireland’s Davey Byrne’s Prize back in 2014. Sara Baume took the prize, and one of Kajermo’s co-shortlistees was Danielle McLaughlin: there wasn’t any filler in that list, and this longer version of The Iron Age is just as striking as its antecedent.

The unnamed narrator is a young Finnish girl; the book tells about a short period in her family’s history, beginning with their life on her grandmother’s farm, followed by their brief sojourn in a small town after her father falls out with his mother, and wrapping up with an account of their move to Sweden once he gets a steady job in a paper mill. It’s called The Iron Age partly because their lives so far north in the early 1950s are rudimentary and difficult – an electric bulb is a novelty; they have to row across a lake to visit their rich relatives to beg some eggs; the Christmas when Santa brings a pencil and a sugared bun is ‘the best Christmas ever’ – and partly as a reference to the shrapnel that entered the narrator’s father’s legs during the war (the ill-fated Continuation War against the Soviets in the first half of the 1940s); the girl speculates that this iron has affected not only his legs, but his heart, and not only him, but his whole family, herself included: ‘we were not,’ she says once, quietly and typically understating her circumstances, ‘a family that hugged or kissed’.

The opening scenes are relatively blithe and outwardly inconsequential – rural scenes, eggs and dogs, folktales and bogeymen – but as the text progresses, Kajermo gently but inexorably forces us to recognise that her real topic is the psychological impact of poverty, domestic violence and alienation (the town/country clash in Finland; the cultural and linguistic barriers in Sweden) upon her narrator. What seemed at first clownish and amusing (the father’s inability to get along with his relatives, colleagues, or neighbours) becomes increasingly dark, as we witness his bitterness at his wife’s growing independence; his refusal to bring his eldest son, Tapio, to Sweden with the others because he believes that Tapio’s presence back on the old farm will stake out his own eventual claim on the land once his mother dies (it doesn’t); and his rage when his six year-old daughter cannot tell left from right. The father reads, at first, then, as a hapless, but hopeful character – one for whom we might root – but by the book’s end, as his daughter retreats into a self-protective silence, he has become a symbol of brutality:

‘There was a strange safety in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a very big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my eyes. I realised I was safe inside, looking out at a very angry man.’

The apparent simplicity of Kajermo’s style belies the force her story carries. Her prose is unadorned and her story is straightforward, anecdotal and often funny; the underlying violence and unhappiness of her characters, then, sneaks up upon the reader and leaves a more lingering sense of horror than it might have otherwise done. Her use of fairy- and folk-tales reinforces this idea of layered realities – the magical landscape both hiding and revealing an underlying terror. The ending, in particular offers no concessions to the reader desperate for closure: while this is, on some level, a coming-of-age story, with the narrator growing into the knowledge of her father’s faults and proclivities, and society’s cruelties, Kajermo, like the Brothers Grimm, refuses to round it off with placations and promises of easier days to come.

Any Cop?: It’s a disconcerting read – more complex than it seems on first glance, with a lingering sense of existential doom – but it’s a very impressive one (all that in 118 pages!) and, lest we forget, it’s also beautifully illustrated by Kajermo’s niece. Thumbs up from us.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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