LIFE is at once bizarrely complicated and unnervingly simple in the Örlands, a Swedish-speaking cluster on the outskirts of the Åland islands. Scattered midway between Stockholm and the Finnish mainland, the archipelago is almost exclusively conservative Lutheran, made up of families who have lived for generations in the same few fishing settlements.
World War II is still subsiding across northern Europe when newly graduated pastor Petter Kummel and his wife Mona arrive in the Örlands with their baby daughter Sanna. It is the Kummels’ first posting, and together they must forge their young marriage virtually alone, cut off from their neighbours by water and, in deepest midwinter, almost-constant darkness and expansive sea-ice.
Mona – confident, competent, pragmatic and grounded – is the ideal complement for naïve, impractical, other-worldly Petter, she as blunt and workmanlike as he is trusting and whimsical. When the parsonage’s cows must be milked or its paddocks cut for hay it is Mona who takes charge while her husband counsels parishioners and studies for his theological exam. United, though, they face the everyday minutiae of an isolated existence a full day’s sailing by mail-ship from the nearest real town.
The winner of Finland’s most prestigious literary award in 2012 and just released in English for the first time, Ice is the product of Åland author Ulla-Lena Lundberg, whose experiences living in the islands enrich this novel with an astonishing depth of authentic grassroots detail. In keeping with local tradition, Lundberg applies Swedish-language names to Finland’s two major cities, Helsinki (Helsingfors) and Turku (Åbo), with cultural descriptions that give a genuine insight into the bipolar culture of this tiny outpost.
The distinctively Scandinavian sensibilities that shape the storyline – at times heart-warming and in the next instant tragic – keep this intimate small-town tale unpredictable and engrossing right to the final page.