Anja Snellman, Continents. #WITMonth

Anja Snellman, Continents: A Love Story. New Terrain Press, 2018. Translated from the Finnish by Timo Luhtanen. 20051 #WITMonth

#WITMonth logoI was sent this novel via fellow blogger Liz Dexter’s site ‘Adventures in reading, running and working from home’ as a giveaway from the publisher for responding to her review: my thanks to Liz and New Terrain for introducing me to this author. It’s also my first contribution to #WomenInTranslation Month (aka #WITMonth), curated annually by Meytal Radzinski at the Bibliobio blog.

According to Anja Snellman’s website she’s been a writer for nearly forty years, and has published 25 novels which have been translated into twenty languages. Her first novel, Sonia O. Was Here, remains the highest-selling Finnish debut so far.

The basic theme of Continents is simple; Oona and Alex are at first passionately in love; they’ve started their map life together, as Oona sees it, on the continent of Asia:

Their Asia was pure enchantment – it lasted for their first summer and the following one, if not longer. That first summer, they were busy making their first child on the smooth cliff by his grandmother’s villa.

Snellman Continents coverOona sees yellow for days afterwards, a sort of poetic afterburn from the sunshine in those idyllic times. That perhaps gives a flavour of Snellman’s method: a generic portrait in geographical images, locations, sensations, of the stages of a relationship (‘every couple has their Asia’ – usually but not necessarily at the start of their relationship), with highly personal details and poetic analogies and images from the daily lives and experience of this particular couple to animate it.

Here’s a typically sensuous account of life in steamy ‘Asia’:

Touches set off tremors of excitement and pleasure, and skin glows and smells of water lilies…In Asia, couples burn candles and incense, and write random lists about things they have in common. …They keep misplacing their keys and watches, forget the pizza box on the roof of the car, and accidentally lock the cat in the wardrobe.

I enjoy the way Anja Snellman conveys the delirious excitement of this erotically charged, blissful and intimate stage of a marriage, while showing it grounded in the humdrum and everyday. Their passionate intensity and mutual absorption is even slightly comical when described from the outside like that. That’s well observed.

Oona is very like the protagonist of her cartoon strips (she’s an artist-illustrator), a ‘quirky hippy girl’ called Rainbow. Alex, a journalist in ‘real’ life, is represented by her cartoon boyfriend, Scoop – also a writer.

Ominous signs are apparent even from the start. When Alex asks why Rainbow holds a daisy while Scoop has a pen behind his ear, and whether this brings them together or drives them apart, Oona answers honestly that she doesn’t know:

She thought he might not yet understand the combination of uninhibited and sad, bold and ambiguous, and blatant and shy, but he would learn.

Would he really? Alex is representative of a certain common type of man (I’m allowed to say that, being male): kind, generous but lacking in insight into himself and others, short of empathy. He’s quick to get jealous when Oona’s ex-boyfriends are discussed. He doesn’t share Oona’s generous, intuitive abandon, her untidy joie de vivre:

She lights up his life. When they get to the continent of Africa, Alex begins to wonder if her light is too bright.

Australia is remembered by Oona as ‘remote, with a peculiar outline and long distances, and not particularly attractive at first.’ But it was also a time of happiness, even though ‘the scent of a man was often replaced by that of a baby, and she had trouble sleeping for different reasons than before.’ More warning signs appear starkly: ‘isolation looms in Australia, so couples need to find ways to connect with the rest of the world.’

There’s that portentous, omniscient narrative voice, anatomising the situation while presenting the particulars: they think about making love, ‘with abandon, for hours’, but then they ‘yawned and shrugged, and the idea was left hibernating, or perhaps smoldering.’

Another good, salutary joke.

Anyone who’s been in a long relationship will recognise with a frisson this occasionally comical, deadly serious way of charting the stages of a relationship, in this case a marriage. Can passion survive parenthood, domesticity, promotions and pressures of work and career, rivalries and tensions in the dynamic between the two partners? It’s an ancient question, and Snellman doesn’t shirk exploring their resolutions, as this couple ‘slip, slide and slither’ through the continents to the icy wastes of Greenland and Antarctica.

Thanks again to Liz and New Terrain Press – an imprint that specialises in translations of Nordic works of literature – for introducing me to this bright literary voice. I agree with Liz, who says in her review that it’s ‘impeccably translated’, and skewers the achingly cool social circle of this couple unerringly. They just don’t do emotion and love too well. Still, who does?

Turns out, Oona does.

I hope to post a French-Canadian #WITMonth contribution next. Thanks again to Liz and Bibliobio for the nudge into – no, inspiration for – reading more women writers in translation, and my first ever Finnish novel.