The Winter War by Philip Teir

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Written by Victoria

It feels like it’s been quite a while since I last read an engaging portrait of domestic drama from a male writer. Philip Teir’s debut novel has been compared to Jonathan Franzen, who is arguably the most starry executor of the dysfunctional family tale, but the comparisons I found myself reaching for were perhaps a little less black and a little more compassionate – Alison Lurie, John Updike were names that came to my mind. In any case, they all share the ability to produce a mightily readable story that cunningly and lightly layers in emotional and psychological depth, and isn’t adverse to throwing in the odd farcical moment or two.

Max and Katriina Paul are a married couple in late-middle-age whose marriage has long since crumbled under them and who are borne aloft by the structure of family life alone. Max is a sociologist at Helsinki university, a man who had a succès de scandale in his earlier career with a work on sexuality that hit the headlines. This is ancient history now, and the book he is currently working on – a biography of Finnish philosopher Edvard Westermarck – is drowning in its own research. Painfully aware of the approach of old age, Max hangs onto stasis for fear that the alternative is decline.

Katriina works in recruitment for the health service and is thoroughly jaded by her job, handling her tasks ‘mechanically, without being fully present, as if she were a robot imitating an energetic mid-level manager at the height of her career.’ They have two daughters: Helen, who is married with young children and Eva, who at 29 seems to be starting again with a fine art course in London. Katriina, overly-invested in her children due to the emotional emptiness of her marriage, can’t quite let her daughters go, and when the book opens, an old argument is being rehearsed in which Max suggests that Eva should be left in peace to establish her new life. Which Katriina takes offence at, ‘as if she wasn’t allowed to call her own daughter.’ Max fears they are ‘yet another unhappy, spoiled, middle-aged couple who hate each other.’ But as is so often the case, such piercing observations only manifest themselves as bickering over whether, and how, they should remodel the kitchen.

The first catalyst for change is Max’s former graduate student, Laura, who invites him to give her a special interview to mark his upcoming 60th birthday. Whilst this should ostensibly be nothing more than a flattering approach by a journalist keen to use her old contacts, Max views the occasion as an opportunity for an affair. He can’t help but hope that his ego might be stroked in more than one way. But all too soon, Max finds he’s battling against the emotional pressures of guilt and the physical ones of unfamiliarity. Before any decisive step has been taken, he’s begging tragi-comic lessons in tantric sex off of a friend who’s a yoga instructor.

Meanwhile, Eva in London is trying to adjust to a new way of life. Her art course is run by the charismatic but pretentious Malik, with whom she falls into an ill-defined affair. She also makes friends with the shy but eager Russ, who she considers a bit of a joke at first, before he responds to her rejection by joining the Occupy movement on the pavements outside St Pauls cathedral. Much of the swirling mass of underlying preoccupations in the novel becomes crystallised around Eva and her choices. The Paul family are all struggling one way or another with a lack of authenticity; stultified in outgrown roles, making do with a template of family relations, needing some sort of external validation rather than relying on their own integrity. The question is how long this simulacrum of the good life can hold people together who really aren’t enjoying themselves. Will Eva be the one to find enough inner strength to free herself from cliché? Well, in fact she is forced by events into finding a different path, but her search for a true artistic voice becomes a surefire indication of her healthy redemption.

The Winter War was fought between Finland and the Soviet Union and lasted from November 1939 and March 1940. An iconic period of Finnish history, it serves only as a metaphor in the novel for the quiet war that is fought within the Paul family over the same winter months. Can a new state of affairs arise from within their worn out framework? This is a delightfully engaging novel, a pleasure to read with its clever mix of black comedy and shining insights and subtly informative about the march of history through an intriguingly complex part of Scandinavia. It’s also a fine addition to the canon of dysfunctional family literature and will make Philip Teir an author to watch.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Philip Teir, The Winter War (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2015) 978-1781254882, 256 pp., hardback.

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