White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen

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Translated from Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

Reviewed by Kate Gardner

I’ll warn you from the start: this is not the book to read if you’re feeling a bit sad or down – it will not pick you up. This is a dark book filled with sorrow. But it’s also beautiful and lyrical. I think it will haunt me for a long while.

The story is set in Finland in 1867, a year of famine and failed crops followed by an extra harsh winter. Marja is the wife of a poor farmer in the remote north of the country, where the food has long since run out. People say there is bread in St Petersburg, so she wraps her children Mataleena and Juho in all their clothes and they set out on foot for the long and perilous journey. In a small town further south, Teo and Lars are brothers, a doctor and a politician. The famine and poverty spreading through the country reach them secondhand, but they still can’t avoid its effects. Between these characters, the many sides of desperation, hunger and sheer human will to survive are explored, with often devastating effect.

Juho is still giggling. The child’s laughter ploughs a path through grey despair. And it leads not to white death but to yellow-green, vernal St Petersburg. In the hungry, hollow emptiness in Marja’s stomach, clutched by a cold, bony fist, the Tsar’s city seems to rise.

It sounds tough, and at times it is, but the poverty and desolation is made bearable by the beauty of the writing, not to mention a strain of dark humour from many of the characters. I’ll admit I was a little put off by the extremely frank sex scenes early on in the book. Be warned: it’s explicit. But the heat of those early scenes quickly gives way to the endless cold of winter, and emotions are cooler too, as starvation and disease kill more and more people.

The descriptions of hunger and starvation unavoidably reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Like the hero of that book, Marja hallucinates – strange, often awful visions combining details of all that she has seen on her journey. And she, along with her children, has seen a lot of awfulness – the worst of humanity. There are also moments of the best of humanity – the have-nots sharing what they don’t have – but this is not an uplifting book, it’s an exploration of quiet desperation.

Mataleena looks at the man’s bushy sideburns. One of his eyes is covered by a cataract and this frightens her. It is as if the old farmer’s eye were inhabited by frost. She has to be careful to avoid looking at that eye of frost: the coldness could burst out and wrap a too-curious child up in its shawl, keeping her captive there for ever.

This – like all Peirene Press books – is very short, a novella really, and yet it feels as though an epic story has been told. I’m glad it was compressed, as 300+ pages of this misery could have been too hard to take, but then again I’d have had twice as much beautiful prose to immerse myself in.

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Kate Gardner is a book lover and reviewer based in Bristol, UK, and blogs at noseinabook.co.uk

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger  (2012), translated from Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah. (Peirene Press: London, 2015). 9781908670205,  136pp,  pbk original.

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