Niemi’s debut (“the single bestselling book in Sweden’s history,” we’re told) describes life in a remote northern Swedish village during the 1960s.
If Vittula were in the US, it would probably be someplace in Alaska, Arkansas, or Idaho—somewhere very far off the beaten track. A little town north of the Arctic Circle, Vittula is close to the border of Finland, and most of the townspeople are as likely to speak Finnish as Swedish. There’s not much work there outside the timber industry, and with the advent of mechanization most of the lumberjacks are chronically unemployed. Narrator Matti grew up in Vittula in the 1960s and saw the area decline. The fathers all went on the dole, the children moved away or went on the dole themselves, and the rest of Sweden forgot—if it ever knew in the first place—that Vittula existed. Matti tells his story in a series of episodic chapters that come together in a narrative mosaic portraying a time and place long since past. One Sunday the villagers flock to church en masse—even the Communists crowd in—to see an African missionary, the first black man ever to set foot in Vittula. A German tourist who rents a summer cottage in town turns out to be an old SS officer. The new music teacher at school has no fingers on his right hand. Matti’s father explains the facts of life to him in the sauna and tells the boy a bit more about his grandfather’s exploits than he might have wanted to hear. The teenagers from the region gather in an abandoned sewage plant for a drinking contest. And Matti, having long worshipped from afar a mysterious girl in a black Volvo, finally meets and is seduced by his dream woman—without ever learning her name. A portrait of growing up, in other words.
A sentimental tale saved from pure nostalgia by the unfamiliarity of its setting and a nicely understated narration.