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It'll take a while, but it's worth it
on May 13, 2016
This took me a long time to read, which I at first thought was a mark against the book. The subject matter -- the faculty and patients at a remote convalescent hospital in Finland sometime after the first World War -- didn't intrigue me, and I thought I couldn't get through it but in staccato sessions every week or so because I was bored. And to be fair, there are stretches I think the book could have done without. That said, there's no mistaking the very palpable atmosphere brought to one's mind while reading this book. I finished it some weeks back and still occasionally think about it. This suggests it was the atmosphere that kept me from reading for too long at a moment, and that atmosphere is very well-developed, built piece-by-piece over its some two hundred pages. The author does a masterful job layering what seem like simple concerns and trivial pursuits into a web of interactions and reactions that build further towards the climax, all surrounded by the unforgiving and claustrophobic ice of the setting.
A lot of reviews I've read mention the book's genre shift at the very end (last fifty pages or so) feels hackneyed or out of place, but I don't think those reviewers were paying attention. With the ending in mind, the novel becomes a slow discourse on the dissolution of identity. You're given hints of backstory early on that will "explain" the characters, and while you get some more it's never enough to satisfy if that's what you're looking for. No, the real beauty of the novel comes from its relentless description of (and narrative adherence to) routine. Routine buries other concerns, routine is what the characters at Suvanto are looking for. In a way, it's almost relaxing. Until it isn't, when certain events occur, and the genre shift happens. At that point, you're stuck. Your mind is so hazy from the routine, is that blood in your relaxing book? The use of a Greek chorus structure for the narration really helps this. Early on you can find yourself asking who the "we" in the narration is, but this question will slip away for a while until you notice its terrifying return.