THE PARSON’S WIDOW by Marja-Liisa Vartio


Email this review


First English translation of a modern classic from Finland.

Vartio (1924–1966) left behind volumes of lyric poetry, short stories and a handful of novels. This one is regarded by some critics to be her masterpiece. The central characters are the eponymous Adele; her maid, Alma; and the parson who remains a vital presence even in death. Adele and Alma spend most of their time reliving the past and arguing about whose recollection is the perfect one. Their stories reveal much about their own fears and preoccupations and the pitiful secrets that seethe just beneath the surface of respectable rural life. They also force the reader to confront some unpleasant possibilities: that neither character is reliable, that memory itself is woefully unstable and that life is more or less meaningless anyway. This novel has much in common with other works of literature produced in Europe during the middle of the last century, but Vartio domesticates existential philosophy. The narrative is not set in the empty otherworld of, say, Sartre or Beckett, but in the thoroughly mundane interiors of the pastoral middle class. Hopelessness is not rendered in oracular puzzles or quotable koans, but, rather, in endless arguments about the best way to dust a taxidermied owl. There is something farcical about the smallness of the characters’ world view, but there’s a rigorous sort of honesty in Vartio’s approach, too: The bickering of Adele and Alma represents alienation as it is experienced by the average citizen of the Western world in a way that the abstract nihilism of Waiting for Godot and No Exit do not.

Despair in miniature.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-56478-483-4
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2007


IndieTHE LADY OF THE HOUSE by Katherine Elberfeld
by Katherine Elberfeld