I have now made several attempts at describing When I Forgot, the debut novel by young Finnish author Elina Hirvonen, but each attempted paragraph has been disappointing, dull, and confusing. The novel itself is not disappointing, dull, and confusing, but it is greater than the sum of its parts.
Anna, the narrator, spends the ‘present-day’ span of the novel sitting in a coffee shop, about to go to visit her brother Joona in mental hospital but not quite managing it. She remembers moments from her early childhood, from her teenage years when Joona was already mentally ill, and from the recent past. This is a novel about family histories, stories that families tell about themselves, and subdued, everyday tragedies that make families fall apart. Anna’s story is echoed by that of her American boyfriend Ian, whose father was a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, but the relationship between Anna and her brother makes the novel what it is: an intense co-dependence made all the more painful by good childhood memories, when things had yet to go so wrong. As she says: ‘I want a childhood to reminisce about. A life to tell others about. A brother with a real life.’
The characters relive and reinvent their memories through creative writing; Anna has written poetry relating to her brother, and Ian spent her childhood making up stories about a superhero father. This structure is naturally complicated by Anna being the narrator: she not only re-imagines her own story, but also imagines Ian re-imagining his. These relationships culminate in the time leading up to the war in Iraq, which makes this very much a novel of its time - and gives its melancholy, Finnish atmosphere an international edge.
What I liked best about this novel is that in spite of the 9/11, Iraq and Vietnam references it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. The global events provide context to the personal histories, but the book remains intensely personal: the political never takes over. Hirvonen refers to Mrs Dalloway, but even if she hadn’t, I would probably have made the connection. Just like Woolf’s novel, When I Forgot has a profound sense of life going on no matter what: ‘Memory is one of life’s burdens that we can do nothing about’ - there are no happy endings, but at least we may learn to bear our burdens a little better.
(Incidentally, Mrs Dalloway seems to be a peculiarly potent literary reference in this day and age - there is The Hours by Michael Cunningham, of course, and Rachel Cusk’s Arlington Park which I read recently. Every novelist seems to find something different in Mrs Dalloway, too: if Arlington Park was about the Clarissas of this world, When I Forgot is about the Septimus Smiths and their Lucrezias.)
Finnish is a tricky language to translate to English because the difficulties are less obvious: there is no odd syntax that you fix must, as in German, and Fennoisms don’t jump out of the text with the exuberance of Gallicisms. No, more often than not Finnish translated to English just sounds a little ‘off’, and you cannot say why. Whenever I try translating something myself, it feels like singing in a slightly wrong key, but being unsure what the right key was supposed to be. After the first chapter I was worried this might be the problem with Douglas Robinson’s translation of this novel, but it quickly turned out to be very readable - and, looking through the novel in its original Finnish, faithful too. It had a rather American feel to it, and some ‘wannas’ and ‘gonnas’ to capture the informality of spoken Finnish, but considering the story, this did not seem out of place.
Final Verdict: Some readers will doubtless find this a little formless, a little plotless. There is very little sense of closure, and I can’t put my finger on any particular memorable moment - except a traumatic Christmas scene that stands out vividly in my memory. Rather, When I Forgot is a fragmented but intriguing whole - like a piece of embroidery that Anna picks up, stitches with her own memories and those of others, and then sets aside half-finished. If you like the sound of this, the chances are you’ll enjoy the book. I did.