Saturday, 28 March 2015

Book review : White Hunger - Aki Ollikainen

Pereine Press always surprise me with their quirky, translated, contemporary European novellas. I tend to think of them as "Quick Reads for Intellectuals" and The Times Literary Supplement described them as "two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting : literary cinema for those fatigued by film." That is actually a really good description because, despite being short (this one is only 136 pages long), they manage to sweep you away to a time and a place that you can see, smell and even taste, as they are so rich and evocative in their descriptions.

I recently received White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, which is the 16th Pereine title and included in the Chance Encounter series. (An annual Pereine subscription consists of three books chosen from across Europe and connected by a single theme.)

White Hunger takes us to Finland in 1867, a year which saw a devastating famine that wiped out the population in vulnerable farming communities and left the glacial wastelands dotted with starving beggars, wandering from farmstead to almshouse, hoping for a charitable bowl of gruel and a safe place to lay their heads for the night before resuming their hopeless trek to St Petersburg (this intially confused me but I learnt that northern Finland was part of Russia at the time) or another bigger town which may provide salvation. Despite the universal hardship they encounter - at best, people have watery gruel or stale bread made from ground bones or bark to offer - most people accept to provide them a safe place until morning, particularly the women, who ignore their less charitable husbands who often say that they have enough trouble feeding themselves.

The narrative follows the plight of Marja, a wife and mother of two who makes the heart-wrenching decision to leave her dying husband and set off into the white wilderness with her two children in the hopes of finally reaching a better place, where they will at least have bread made with flour to eat. As she crosses the icy landscapes, encountering the best and worst of humanity, protecting her children as best she can, you get the sense that nothing is happening - just an endless chain of days spent walking through the unforgiving snow and nights hoping for enough warmth to live to see another day - but when you take a step back, there is actually a lot going on. The death of loved ones, rape and violence, loss of hope - all traumatic events that are shrugged off as trivial in bodies anaesthetised by the biting cold and wracked with constant gnawing hunger.

The book follows one mother's plight but the writing also has a universal quality, not just describing the Finnish famine of the 1860's but also today's refugees, hopelessly plodding on in the hopes of finding a safe place to survive in. It's a bleak read that will haunt you long after you have turned the final page.

star rating : 4.5/5

RRP : £12

Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Peirene Press Ltd (1 Mar. 2015)
ISBN-10: 1908670207
ISBN-13: 978-1908670205
Product Dimensions: 12.5 x 1 x 19 cm

Disclosure : I received the book in order to write an honest review.


  1. "to St Petersburg (this intially confused me but I learnt that northern Finland was part of Russia at the time)"

    Actually all of Finland was a part of Russia, as the Grand Duchy of Finland. There is still a statue of Alexander II in the Senate's Square in Helsinki, erected by Finns, as the late 19th century was a very good era for Finland.
    Helsinki used to double for St. Petersbourg during the Cold War, for example many outdoor scenes of the movie Reds were filmed there. You can see them (and the statue) here:

    The Peirene Press also has another Finnish book about the war in which Sweden lost Finland to Russia. Many of the leading Finns were not too sorry about that, some were already serving in Russia, and it proved to be a good change for Finland. For example Finnish might have died out under the Swedish rule, instead we got an autonomy and later the first female MPs in the world in 1907.

    1. Thanks for all the extra info, it's great when a book takes you to a historical time and place that you knew little about and fills in gaps in your knowledge that you never knew you had !