It seems a strange inconsistency of nature that winter is still advancing although days have been growing longer for almost a month already. Around me many people are feeling the effects of the cold and dark season now: they are gliding into winter depression. Some just get sad and listless while others turn irritable and start nagging. In The Winter War by Philip Teir the gloom of winter adds to the problems of a long-time married couple and life isn’t a bed of roses for the two grown-up daughters, either. The novel set in contemporary Finland and London shows how the family members cope with the continuous small challenges of life, each one according to his or her own nature.
Philip Teir was born in Pietarsaari, Finland, in August 1980. The member of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland studied philosophy and Scandinavian literature and worked as a journalist for a daily until 2009. He already saw published a volume of his poetry and a collection of short stories titled Akta dig för att färdas alltför fort (2011; Beware of Travelling Too Fast). His first novel, The Winter War (Vinterkriget: en äktenskapsroman) appeared in 2013 and has just come out in English translation. Philip Teir lives in Helsinki, Finland, with his family and makes his living as a freelance journalist and writer.
Max and Katriina Paul have been married for over thirty years, when their already quarrelsome relationship enters The Winter War. Max is a sociology professor at the University of Helsinki and a popular science author who gained most of his renown and his nickname “Doctor Sex” in the 1990s with a sex study and participation in a talk show. Sexual and married life have remained his specialities and this winter he is supposed to finish work on his biography of the almost forgotten Finland-Swedish scientist Edvard Westermarck who published The History of Human Marriage in 1891, but he has problems to get into writing and always puts off his editor begging for the first draft. As a graduate in Political Sciences responsible for human resources and recruiting in the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa (HUS) Katriina too has made a notable career, she feels increasingly discontent, though, both with her work and with her marriage because with the years everything has become mere routine. In December is Max’s sixtieth birthday and the freelance journalist Laura Lampela, who happens to be one of Max’s former students, interviews him for a portrait in the Helsingin Sanomat. He is flattered by her interest and soon toys with the idea of having an affair with the attractive young woman. Meanwhile Katriina organises a big birthday party for Max to which also their younger daughter Eva, aged twenty-nine, is expected. She started her postgraduate studies of arts at a renowned university in London only in September and can’t really afford the flight, but she has also another reason for her trip home. To her great surprise and displeasure Russ, a colleague from university who has a crush on her, turns up at the party before she even arrives there. Disappointed by Eva who doesn’t return his feelings Russ leaves for London alone and joins the Occupy movement. When Katriina is in Manila, Philippines, on a business trip in January, Max asks Laura Lampela to help him with his book suggesting a mutual trip to Kristinestad where his mother lives in a nursing home and where they can work in peace at the family’s summer vacation house nearby. On her return Kristiina is sure that Max betrayed her with the journalist and…
Although the title of the novel is clearly meant to evoke The Winter War of 1939-40 between the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and neutral Finland, the plot isn’t set in the historical period nor is it of any importance for the story. Much rather the setting is contemporary and the protagonists are the four members of a modern family including their social circles. The author uses a long-time marriage threatened to break at last to produce a social study of modern Finland as well as a character study of the very different family members. The time-frame of the story split into three parts is a typical Finnish winter, thus the months from November through March, although many flashbacks in the form of memories make understand where the characters come from and what shaped them. The final chapter – and part –, however, is set in June and serves as a kind of epilogue to show where the events led in the end – avoiding to continue the most intriguing plot line because it didn’t fit in. The novel is a typical third-person narrative, but points of view switch from Max to Katriina, Eva and Helen ever again showing their differences of approach to life and everything from introvert to extravert behaviour. However, the psychological dimension of the novel doesn’t go very deep and the protagonists’ actions didn’t always seem sufficiently well-founded to me. Especially Katriina’s reaction to Max’s (at first only assumed) escapade feels strange considering that she is described as a person who always plans her actions in detail. Language and style are appropriate for a purposely trivial story of the kind although they are neither innovative, nor particularly imaginative or witty. Since I don’t speak Swedish, I have to rely on the German translation (come out in autumn) there. It seems to be quite good, though.
All things considered, The Winter War by Philip Teir may not be the best debut novel that I ever read, but I certainly passed a pleasant time with it. Like the work of Tove Jansson (»»» read my review of Fair Play) it is an example for the rich literary life of the Finland-Swedish community. It definitely deserves my recommendation.