[I received a review copy of this novel from Netgalley]
Original review here: http://irisonbooks.com/2012/04/02/true-by-riikka-pulkkinen/
"Anna is quiet for a moment, then says, 'Every person’s sadness is their own. Other people can’t understand it.'"
True centres around Elsa, who is dying from cancer. But in many ways, the story is not so much about her, as about her family members and the way they deal with their impeding loss. Key characters are Martti, Elsa’s husband; Eleonoora, the daughter of Elsa and Martti; and Anna, one of Eleonoora’s daughters. And somewhere in the memories of Elsa and Martti, and later on Eleonoora and Anna, is hidden another key character: Eeva, Eleonoora’s nanny and Martti’s mistress.
Two key themes in this novel are love and loss. Rather big, and therefore easily perceived as empty, words, but they truthfully fit the book. Because of the double storyline of the loss of Elsa and the ones she loves as her family, and the pattern of love and loss in the affair between Martti and Eeva, these two themes are explored in a more worthwhile manner than the simple naming of them suggests. Add to that the layer of lost and found memories, and the truthfulness of those, and you may just begin to understand how this books delivers on some quite big themes through a micro study of an (extended) family.
Pulkkinen’s style is beautiful and thoughtful, and she spends quite a lot of time featuring detailed contemplations on life through the eyes of several characters. Most of these are related to the grander themes mentioned before. These contemplative sentences all threaten to tip over the line of philosophical into corny, but most of the time they worked with the general point the book was trying to get across.
I admit, True was a little confusing to me. I started reading this novel thinking it would be about a dying cancer patient and her family’s manner of coping. Instead, the novel heavily features the affair of Eeva and Martti, so much so that in the end I wonder if this is not rather the story of Eeva and Anna’s retelling of it, instead of a story revolving around Elsa. There is nothing wrong with that, although I do not in general do well with stories about affairs. I personally enjoyed True more than most stories about affairs that heavily feature "the other woman", because it plays less to feelings of victimization. I will say though, that I was left craving more details about Elsa’s illness and the contemporary dealing of the family. I felt a more natural sympathy for Elsa, and I was a little disappointed to see so little of Eleonoora and her other daughter, Maria.
Overall, True is a satisfying, quiet, and contemplative read as long as you are prepared to go along with its switch in focus from Elsa’s story to that of Anna and Eeva. If it weren’t for the rather long middle section of the novel that I felt could have done with a little less detail, the book could have very well ended up ranking high on my almost favourites list of the year. As it is, it falls into the top layer of that middle section: nourishing, but not stunning enough to blow me away.