Review: Not so sweet, girly or soft: Riikka Pulkkinen’s True

[First published on Killings, May 9, 2012]

Not far into Riikka Pulkkinen’s True, Anna is at work tidying the bookshelves when she realises, ‘Almost every novel has a love story, a description of love beginning’. Anna, so heartbroken she recently spent eleven days lying on the floor of her apartment, is no stranger to the disappointments of love. ‘There’s something the same about all these,’ she thinks, running her eyes across the myriad titles, ‘so much the same that their particular details are almost superfluous’.

The same could be said about True: with its bright pink cover of a headless woman in a dress, readers wandering through a bookshop might pass it by as yet another sweet, girly and soft’ novel about love, which would be a great shame. While the scene just mentioned is about as self-reflective as the novel gets, Pulkkinen presents a love story that on the surface might appear overly familiar but underneath has its own distinct edge.

True tells the story of three generations of women dealing with the complexities of loving others and being loved. Terminally ill matriarch Elsa has returned home to be cared for by her husband Martti and daughter Eleonoora. When Anna, Elsa’s granddaughter, discovers a dress hanging in her grandmother’s closet, she learns it belonged to a woman named Eeva, who worked as a live-in nanny when her mother was young. This discovery is a major turning point, sending the reader back forty years to when Eeva first appeared, revealing a hidden affair between Eeva and Martti and the unforeseen consequences it has on their family and friends’ lives.

The novel focuses mostly on the ‘forbidden love’ between Martti, the tortured artist, and Eeva, his beautiful, much younger muse, at the expense of the other less clichéd stories about unconditional love and familial responsibility. Far more interesting than Martti and Eeva’s extensive conversations about love is the idealised  picture of sixties Europe Pulkkinen sketches for the reader: the growing student movement, the sense of revolution in the air.  Translated by Lola M. Rogers (True is Pulkkinen’s English-language debut) Pulkkinen has her characters debate love and life in the great European tradition of existentialism, which in the case of True, sees this transplanted to a Finnish landscape; the salons of Paris swapped for lakeside saunas and croissants for cardamom buns.

There is also a nod to the French New Wave, with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Pierrot le Fouopening the novel: ‘We are made of dreams and dreams are made of us.’ The novel’s structure borrows some of the stylistic traits of La Nouvelle Vague: the plot is fairly elliptical, skipping back and forth between decades, but more crafted – the characters’ fates, from beginning to end, are so intertwined it’s as though a mirror has been planted in the book’s spine. Such symmetry of plot is, for the most part, subtly handled and is better understood on a second read.

Some readers might find the thematic preoccupation with love too much. Certainly the characters are overcome: Eeva describes herself as having ‘affection so abundant that it seems to flow from the tips of [her] fingers like nectar’, while other characters, in sheer ecstasy or despair, describe feeling as though they could sink through the floorboards – or in the case of Anna, lie prostrate on her apartment floor. But if readers are being true to themselves they can identify these symptoms as an unfortunate side effect of giving oneself over to others. This is where True differentiates itself from other ‘sweet, girly and soft’ love stories: it depicts how love, or more accurately the idea of love, can not only bring great joy to people but destroy them too.