We Sinners, by Hanna Pylvainen
We Sinners is Hanna Pylvainen’s debut novel. It opens with the character of Brita Rovaniemi as she is asked to a dance by Jude Palmer, a classmate who is ‘tall and heavy with dark hair’. Due to her family dynamic, Brita reluctantly declines the offer and then spends the rest of the school year trying to avoid him.
Brita’s formative years are lived through in We Sinners. She is fifteen when the novel begins, an awkward age where she finds herself ‘too old now to be teased, and too young to be talked to seriously’. She is essentially victimised at the start of the novel, teased because of the way in which she and her six younger siblings live. Her religious family are seen as ‘brainwashed’, and she overhears one of her schoolmates telling their friends in an outraged manner that the Rovaniemis ‘don’t even have a TV’. The family, according to Pylvainen’s narration, ‘were in the world, but not of the world’.
During the hot summer at the beginning of the novel, the family decide to move to a house which is finally big enough for them all, and stay in their cousin’s apartment in the interim. They acquire a dog named Max after his former owner, the flat’s landlord, suddenly passes away.
Part of her yearning to remember her family’s origin and to better understand her parents who regularly speak in their native language, steers Brita to recite the Lords Prayer to herself ‘because it was the only Finnish she could speak in full sentences’. The children all try to fit in with those around them, the jeans they wear ‘the same cut as everyone else’s, only cheaper’. This sense of trying to simultaneously belong to both worlds, Finland and the United States, is present throughout the novel.
Along with the novel’s rather more amusing scenes – all of the Rovaniemi children having to have oatmeal baths when they simultaneously come down with chickenpox, for example – We Sinners includes many darker elements too. The Rovaniemis are very unhappy as a collective, sadly so at times. Whilst the author’s portrayal of this unhappiness is realised well, there seems to be a lack of sensitivity for her characters at times.
The novel is a little confusing in places, particularly with regard to who the characters are and how they fit into the family. This is especially true when one takes into account the many characters that people the church sermons, and the way in which the majority of Brita’s siblings are unnamed until quite a way into the novel. There are also rather muddled aspects within the family itself. At first, Warren and Pirjo Rovaniemi have seven children, a figure which quickly becomes nine. As the family expands, there is no sense of the passing of time. New family members and offspring merely appear whilst everyone else carries on as normal, acting the same ages and not progressing in their personalities or beliefs.
We Sinners is an interesting family saga and the constant struggling of the Rovaniemis for a permanent sense of belonging is well realised, but some aspects of the novel are definitely flawed. The often confusing and sometimes even contradictory family dynamic overrides the better parts of the book, which is a shame.