Relationships between people are like dense forests. Or maybe it’s the people themselves who are forests, trail after trail opening up within them, trails that are kept hidden from others, opening only by chance to those who happen upon them.
The family at the center of True by Riikka Pulkkinen is in the process of discovering all the many ways their relationships are like dense forests. Elsa, the matriarch, a successful child psychologist, is dying of cancer; her husband, daughter, and two granddaughters are rallying around to take care of her, instead of leaving her in hospice care. This time gives each of them cause to reflect on their lives together and apart.
In poetic, but not fussy prose, translated by Lola M. Rogers, Pulkkinen captures the way family members are deeply intimate, knowing each other inside and out, able to recognize the moles on each other’s bodies and the particular feeling of a hand, but also entirely independent, even sometimes strangers to each other. They share memories they would never think to mention to anyone else, of playing dress up and making up stories about people they see on the street. But they harbor secrets, of desires and betrayals and misplaced love. For the family in this novel, impending death makes this reflection on their past relationships both natural and urgent.
The biggest secret within the family is of an affair that Elsa’s artist husband, Maarten, had back in the 1960s with a young woman named Eeva. This story is told in flashback, apparently by Eeva herself, as Elsa and Maarten’s granddaughter Anna learns about the relationship. The past has left scars—literal ones—within the family, but Pulkkinen avoids the clichéd melodramatic revelation that you might expect. There’s gradual understandings, and a revelation for one character who has both known and not known for her whole life. It’s a thing that happened, and it was unfortunate for all involved. It’s in the past and thus haunts the present, but it’s not the source of any dramatic showdowns—those too are from the past.
Although the affair doesn’t seem to define this family in the present, it did get a lot of dramatic space within the book, and it made me feel at times like the book didn’t quite know what it was. Is this a book about a dying woman and her family, or is it about a long-past affair and the family that remembers it? It’s both, I suppose, but aspects of the present-day family get lost in her narrative. One of the granddaughters, Maria, is almost entirely absent from the second half of the book, despite seeming in the first half like an equal player in the story.
Overall, however, the book maintains a feeling of unity through the prose, which is filled with images that fit nicely in a story about a painter, who would be inclined to see small details and help others to see them as well. The other unifying factor is hinted at late in the book, and that’s the idea of making up stories about the people around us. Anna and Maarten make a game of this, looking at strangers on buses and theorizing about their lives. But the stories in this book aren’t all about strangers. People cultivate ideas about each other that may have little to do with reality—or at least not with the other person’s reality. So are these stories ways of getting closer, of understanding, or do they just increase the distance? Pulkkinen doesn’t ask these questions overtly, and I wonder if I’m not reading too much into an odd stylistic shift that occurs in late in the book, but it is interesting to think about. For me, the title, True, ends up being a question as much as a description.
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