I'm not sure I would have carried on reading this book had I not promised you, my faithful few blog readers, to review it.
At the beginning I was both confused and yes, frankly bored, with the narrative. English readers who don't like foreign literature often tell me it's because 'It reads like a translation'. I've always taken this to be a sign of certain kind of small-mindedness, even snobbery, thinking the speaker is lazy or unwilling to accept a different culture. So I've dismissed these kinds of comments, not ever considering that a foreign book could simply be badly translated.
Until I read 'When I Forgot'. Had I not grown up in Finland with Finnish as my mother tongue, I could not have made head nor tale of the first 20 pages of this book. The English prose in the beginning is very clipped and clunky. The plot is vague to the point that one feels the reader is kept in suspense for the sake of it. The action takes place in several time spans, while the protagonist sits in a cafe, whiling away her time, smoking and drinking coffee. (If there hadn't been the blurb at the back of the book, I'd not been able to deduce even this little piece of information from the text.)
Suddenly at page 23 the reader is taken into an action scene which happens in the narrator's childhood. This is dramatic stuff and when we come back to the cafe, we begin to understand what's going on. It's the second part of a scene, one that as a whole works brilliantly to draw the reader in. In my humble opinion the author should have started the novel with this scene, and not cut it in half.
Because from this point the simple language and short sentences start to work. I began to sympathise with the narrator, and wanted to know what happens next.
The story takes place in Helsinki in 2001 with the Nine Eleven attacks in America as a backdrop. Anna's lover is a lecturer from New York with his own dramatic childhood experiences to deal with. Anna struggles to find happiness between him, her dysfunctional family and the impeding war against Iraq. Both the reaction in Finland to the world events, with street demonstrations and individual aggression against an American citizen, as well as the mundane every day Helsinki life is skilfully portrayed. Elina Hirvonen is also brilliant at working with several points of views, without compromising the single-narrator plot. Her ability to juxtapose the ordinary with the extraordinary is simply unique.
The author is also extremely adept at describing the few characters of the novel. The mentally-ill brother, strict father and long-suffering mother as well as the American lover are skilfully portrayed. The reader is sometimes almost too aware of their individual sufferings.
In other words I heartily recommend you persevere with this book past the 20 or so pages. It's well worth it.
'When I Forgot' by Elina Hirvonen is published by Portobello Books, London.