James Gault reviews ICE by Ulla-Lena Lundberg translated by Thomas Teal
This is not so much a novel as a fictional journal or memoir. It recounts the life of a young Lutheran priest and his wife and child when he moves to a remote Finnish island community to take up the role of pastor. The daily incidents which punctuate their unfamiliar and unhurried lifestyle are presented as they occur. This in itself is a problem for the author, for it means the book lacks the narrative drive of a firm plot. It starts slowly and steadily builds to a snail’s pace.
But plot and narrative are not everything. If the author can bring a group of fascinating characters to life and make us believe in them, this will often sustain a slow story. Does the author succeed in this here? Well, yes… and no. The characters of Petter the priest and his wife Mona are outstandingly well drawn; I felt for them and was immersed in their problems. Unfortunately the other characters were less effectively written. The author tended to introduce them using character descriptions, which were not always reinforced by their subsequent words and actions. Also disconcerting was the attempt to put adult thoughts and feelings into the minds of the couple’s baby and toddler.
As well as a journal, this is also a book very much themed on theology. Three points of view are presented: the Christian faith of the preacher, the lingering superstitious beliefs in the old legends held by the postman, and the atheistic views of the Russian refugee doctor on the island. The author chooses not to concentrate on the differences between them, but rather to search for an accommodation that allows a place for all three. Each acknowledges that the others maybe have some sort of point. This is an admirable sentiment, but it is another factor in removing conflict and tension in the book, and contributes towards its rather bland feel.
For me, the main achievement of this work is the way it evokes the atmosphere of the setting, the cold, the harshness of the life and the isolation. This is not a bad book, and will be enjoyed by many. Women will be attracted by the characterisation of the two main characters. It is a book that almost makes it for me, but not quite.
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