Book Review: We Sinners
Written by Jaime Warburton
I grew up with nuns. The Sisters of Mercy taught me music and science and dance, and my three-foot-tall child self was a frequent visitor at the sisters’ Motherhouse spaghetti dinners. I read the Bible front to back and hung rosary beads all over the brass bars of my bedstead – especially after having read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
But there’s religion, and then there’s religion. Though I went to Catholic schools, other enrolled students were Muslim and Jewish and agnostic, and I eventually took a political stance against confirmation without much familial backlash. The church was not my family, nor vice versa. For the Rovaniemi family, this is not the case.
The centerpieces of Hanna Pylväinen’s yearning, steel-strung debut novel We Sinners, the nine Rovaniemi siblings and their parents, are members of a conservative Protestant sect called Laestadianism. (Yes, the author grew up in this church, described by one of her characters as “a kind of Lutheranism where everyone is much more hung up on being Lutheran than all the other normal Lutherans.”) We become members too, in a way, as Pylväinen is careful to not fully explain the Church until the final two stories. Instead, readers feel their ways through modest dress, avoidance of movies or music with a beat, and lack of birth control until they feel simultaneously strangers in a strange land and matter-of-factly accepted believers.
Pylväinen crafts her novel in eleven stories, each chapter functioning smoothly as a single unit yet layered and enhanced by bumping shoulder with its neighbors. Organized chronologically and covering more than eighteen years of decisions and realizations, we experience the lives of the intelligent and musical Rovaniemis as we might experience a fugue, variations on themes chasing each other through the pages, the whole largeness of the family in a game of blindfolded tag. The Rovaniemi’s tumult of viola lessons and toothpaste caps shines through the shifting of limited third perspectives, and each voice remains achingly intimate in its loneliness. Introductions most often through the eyes of a romantic partner or lover, putting us in the place of slowly running our own fingertips over the characters, and those who do not get a chapter from their own perspectives tend to also be those who may have been made invisible in the eyes of the church – one unwed and pregnant, for example, and one gay. And there is danger, too: we learn that “You can lose your faith anywhere,” whether in New York City or a basement blocks from where you grew up.
As a writer, Pylväinen is wise rather than smart or cute. While sensitive in her portrayals of men, she is particularly skilled at bringing out the experiences of religious women, both those who leave and those who stay. Particularly within the bounds of a religion that asks women to accept as many children as God gives, there remains a sense that the female duty is to become a never-emptying vessel. But “I already have so much character,” one adult, still-faithful daughter seems to beg. “Always there would be more to give, always it would be she who would have to give, and she had nothing left to give at all.” Yet is the life of her sister nonbelieving sister, who thinks, “It was a limited, gendered power, the power of removal, but she tried to exercise it when she could, to at least prove to herself that she was capable of walking away”, any better? Any less lonely?
With the short story author’s sense of needled importance, Pylväinen picks but few days in her characters’ lives for us to experience, periods that are integral either for their sheer normalcy, moments of decision-making, or birth, death, creation. The characters are introspective, which of course serves a novelist well, but their introspection is never forced: for these deeply religious Finnish-Americans carving out spaces for themselves in an overfull and perhaps under-understanding society, introspection is necessary as they strive to differentiate or integrate their inner and outer lives. We Sinners asks the question, as does one of the characters, “How will I be happy the rest of my life?”
It also asks “How will I love?” and “How will I be Good?”, all questions tightly knit in the experience of thinking, feeling humans, and nearly devastating on the page. This beautiful, resonant and recognizable devastation combines with themes of forgiveness, disappointment, determination, and choice, creating an overall narrative so successful that each time I try to name a stand-out story, another jumps to the front of my mind until my list of favorites encompasses most of the pages (though I could perhaps have done without the final chapter, the fact that I was less interested in it because of the Rovaniemis’ absence gives testimony to Pylväinen’s character creation).
Through these pages we, too, are offered the gifts of faith or individuation, of forgiveness, of walking away. If an author’s goal is to make us more human, more open, then Pylväinen has succeeded. And if we close the book still thinking, still feeling, then so have we.
We Sinners, out from Henry Holt and Company in August of 2012, is Hanna Pylväinen’s debut novel. She is currently at work on her second.
About the Reviewer: Jaime Warburton is a poet and professor living in Ithaca, NY, where she reads freakishly fast and with enormous pleasure. Keep up with her work by visiting jaimewarburton.weebly.com, or tweet her @JaimeSWarburton.