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The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg

The Brothers (2010)

by Asko Sahlberg

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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647186,178 (4.02)10
  1. 10
    The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen (rrmmff2000)
    rrmmff2000: Different period of history, but both set in rural Finland dealing with the unstated in families and communities. Both finely crafted short books.

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English (6)  Finnish (1)  All (7)
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Strong and bitter as Finnish coffee; cold and beautiful like the tracery of ice over a frozen window. This short novel packs a beautifully crafted punch - the multiple points of view are really effective in showing the distance between the characters, as well as how tightly bound together they are. ( )
  AlexDraven | Sep 27, 2013 |
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg is set at the end of The Finnish War, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire (Feb’ 1808 – Sept’ 1809) the result of this war was that the eastern third of Sweden was established as the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. The book starts with the brothers, who have fought on opposing sides, returning to their family farmhouse. With their return old scars resurface, old conflicts born out of past tragedies. The elder brother, Henrik, is embittered, having long been alienated from his family after first being cheated by a neighbour and then his younger brother Erik. This book manages within it’s 122 pages to cover all those epic themes of treachery & conflict, whether through sexual tensions or those family secrets that simmer below the surface or whether contrasting the politics of war with those of family.

As this tale unfolds, each character takes their turn in revealing more of the story in a series of dramatic monologues, that made me think of Alan Bennett’s TV show Talking Heads, (written for BBC television -1988) creating a multiple narrative that’s dark and full of a foreboding that is as dark and chilling as winter. In fact this whole book is as dark and dense as wading through deep snow, and like traipsing through this landscape, you feel you’ve been traipsing for ages and nothing has changed until you look up and find you’ve journeyed miles. This is a small book that portrays grand themes and yet does so by focusing it’s lens on this family and it’s brooding tale, where the passion burns bitter, another way it reminded me was in the similar themes of death, guilt and isolation.

Asko Sahlberg, born 1964, has acquired a fame in Finland that has yet to be replicated in the English speaking world. He published his first novel in 2000 and has written steadily since then, completing his ninth work, The Brothers, in 2010.

This was a wonderfully told tale, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, a multi-lingual mother and daughter translation team. Emily has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in German Studies. Fleur, her mother, is Finnish. They have worked together before, translating the poetry of Helvi Juvonen and Sirkka Turkka, this is their take on this book ( )
1 vote parrishlantern | Jun 26, 2012 |
This small novel packs a real punch. An epic tale told in intricate fashion, somehow crafted in to 122 pages.
The author has created a dark and brooding atmosphere at an icy Finnish farm in 1809 following the Swedish-Russian war. There dwells two brothers, Henrik and Erik, their mother (The Old Mistress), the much put upon Farmhand and a couple of servants, one of them new to this unhappy household. Henrik and Erik have fought the war on opposite sides and the tension that exists within that farmhouse is palpable. Then there is the horse....or is it just a horse? The Farmhand has grave misgivings about the sense in Henrik owning such a malevolent beast which symbolises so much more than meets the eye.

Sahlberg has created a web of intrigue and mystery which has been compared to a Shakespearean drama and William Faulkener's "As I Lay Dying" ....... well deserved comparisons I must say. It is a supremely talented writer who can create vivid characters with their faults, fears and foibles in such few words. I will not reveal the turn of events for fear of ruining the readers' enjoyment. Suffice it to say that you will be gripped and surprised, no shocked, as the story unfolds.

A wonderful premiere to the fabulous Peirene's small epic series for 2012. They never fail to present us with beautifully translated European fiction which deserves to be enjoyed and not overlooked. Their dedication to this cause is admirable and pretty unique. ( )
2 vote teresa1953 | May 17, 2012 |
The Brothers, by Finnish writer Asko Sahlberg, is the first in Peirene Press’s series of the “Small Epic”. The publisher also draws comparisons with Shakespeare and William Faulkner. No pressure, then.

Surprisingly the book did not disappoint. It’s only 122 pages but does pack in a lot of story, including among other things warring brothers, family betrayal, sexual tension, death, illness, gambling debts, bankruptcy, attempted fratricide, blackmail, prostitution and the 1809 war between Sweden and Russia. And yet it never feels like a very dramatic book. The elements of the story accumulate quietly, like snow falling in a Finnish forest.

At first, in fact, the accumulation felt too soft for me. The novel is written in the alternating voices of each of the characters, and the voices didn’t feel real for me – they seemed overly cryptic, deliberately withholding information while dropping hints about drama to come. They said things like:

Yesterday I saw the footprints of a wolf at the edge of the snowy field. That was how I guessed. That was why I went outside, into the pale dawn.

There’s lots of that sort of thing, lots of hints and guesses and references to things we the reader don’t know about. The older brother Henrik comes back from the war, his younger brother Erik is away, and both of these things are bad. There’s a strong sense of foreboding, but nothing is revealed for a long time. Then the drama comes in an avalanche, although because most of it in flashback rather than in the timespan of the main narrative, it again has a somewhat muted feel. What would appear to verge on melodrama if recounted in real time comes to seem quite believable when delivered in flat remembrance.

To be honest I didn’t find the voices very distinct. Each section is preceded by a subheading to indicate who the narrator is, and without that I wouldn’t have had a clue. The style throughout is very consistent, literary and often poetic, whether it’s one of the brothers speaking or the wife or the vengeful cousin or the unnamed Farmhand. Only the mother stands out for being consistently out to lunch, writing about how well the hens are laying even as everything falls apart around her.

There are several revelations at the end, and although one of them was not too surprising, the others were a genuine surprise. Things seem to be moving in a particular direction and Sahlberg takes us off in another one, unpredictable and, although it relies somewhat on a deus ex machina in the form of a sudden legacy from a long-lost relative in America, still handled well and completely believable.

I’ve read all the Peirene novels so far (it’s a relatively new publishing house, in its third year, focusing on short European novels in translation), and while this isn’t my overall favourite (that honour goes to Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea), it’s right up there with the consistently high quality of the others, and doesn’t feel out of place among the grand comparisons drawn in the cover blurb. ( )
2 vote AndrewBlackman | Apr 3, 2012 |
Translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

"I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible. Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies."

The Old Mistress in this snowy and tense Finnish tale reflects on her early impressions of motherhood, and what sort of legacy her two sons would be for her. It's right that she worries, for she is desperately miserable in her desolate forest home, where she has to deal with "people whose speech tells you they have rough palms" as well as a sickly husband. Added to this, she has furtive servants and two wildly opposing boys, Erik and Henrik.

Erik and Henrik are introduced as quarrelsome boys who end up on opposite sides during the war between Sweden and Russia (this takes place in 1809). Neither character is fully exposed, so the tension between the two is immediately apparent while the meaning behind it is delayed. As the plot twists, the reader can see that this was intended...for the reader is given no easy clues to unravel the family's drama.

"...for a time I was able to watch the boys grow up with at least distant pride. But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander. And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my never-ending list of losses."

The character of their mother, the Old Mistress, is one of the most powerful female characters to be found in modern fiction: she has no saving grace that makes her likable or even necessary. Her anger and rage doesn't make her a stereotypical obstacle: rather, she intrigues the reader and pulls out an interest in her that detracts a bit from the animosity between the boys. And author Sahlberg makes her a key to the plot-- a veritable loose cannon as the plot proceeds.

"I took up the habit of moving all the yesterdays and tomorrows discreetly to one side. I have never deceived myself in this respect: I gulp down spirits like a sailor".

Along with the Old Mistress, other characters speak in the first person voice, including both boys. But while the world orbits between their opposite poles, another character begins to invade the literal and figurative world of the desolate farm. This outsider quietly alters the lives of everyone involved, and controls the plot to its remarkable ending.

Several details of note: the subtle writing definitely follows the rule of "show, don't tell". Broken veins on the cheeks of a character are a detail not elaborated on, yet critically important. Scenes between silent characters are so detailed that even without the dialogue, one reads an entire conversation. These kind of details made me wish I could go back and read it again, slower, to catch the amazing writing that can capture so many variants of meaning with the same words, even the same characters, at different times. This subtlety seems to mirror the cold, snowy landscape.

I have to confess, I searched a thesaurus to find other ways to say 'tension' and 'subtle'! I really can't emphasize the taut and bare style of the work enough without saying "tension" repeatedly. So, let me just throw it out there: tension. Everywhere.

Here’s a great link to the actual details of the war the brothers fought in, with some painfully ironic remarks about the changing nature of their uniforms. http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/c_finnish.html ( )
2 vote BlackSheepDances | Mar 6, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The publisher's blurb for this book tells us to expect a "Shakespearean drama", and while it is hardly that, to describe The Brothers as Turgenevian wouldn't be an overstatement.
added by geocroc | editThe Observer, J S Tennant (Apr 8, 2012)
The clever thing about The Brothers is that while it is short – 120 pages – it feels rather longer. In a good way. In fact, this is quite an achievement. Set in an isolated homestead in rural Finland in 1809, just after the Russian-Swedish war (which saw ownership of Finland handed from the Swedes to the Russians), it's a brooding family drama that has about it something of the timeless quality of good soap opera, crossed with spare, precise and evocative prose.
A multiple narrative told in turns by each of the main characters, this is heavy with foreboding, and in the latter half violence and revelations burst forth. The writing is spare but intensely visual. Reading it is like spending two hours in the company of a brooding, atmospheric, Scandinavian late night movie.

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Asko Sahlbergprimary authorall editionscalculated
Jeremiah, EmilyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jeremiah, FleurTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Book description
A Shakespearean drama from icy Finland.

Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 095628406X, Paperback)

Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:22 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Finland, 1809. Henrik and Erik are brothers who fought on opposite sides in the war between Sweden and Russia. With peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm. But who is the master? Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga.… (more)

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