Thursday, 23 October 2014

Are you feeling adventurous, or, Reading quirks, Part 2

I am not a particularly adventurous person. I do enjoy new experiences and have a certain kind of curiosity, but I am definitely not a risk taker. But one of the areas where I can be bold and adventurous is... reading!

Most of us have a favourite genre – the one that, when you come back to it after a detour to other genres, makes you feel like you're coming home. My favourite genre is historical fiction, but I enjoy exploring other genres. Sometimes I'm asked why; why would I read something contemporary, why am I reading something I don't normally read, aren't there enough books in my preferred genre if I'm forced to read something else. The reason is variety!

When it comes to historical fiction, I have my favourite periods, but sometimes I pick an era and events that I know very little or nothing about, for that very reason. After I've read the book, I know at least a little more. I admit that I'm always more interested in individual characters and what happens to them rather than the general events and the “great lines” of history, which is why I may not always glean any facts from these books but rather just a “feel” for the period. On the other hand, sometimes a novel gets me interested in the era or the events so much that I want to learn more about them.

Such a book was a Finnish novel titled “Veriruusut” (translation: “Blood Roses”) by Anneli Kanto. I first came upon Kanto's debute novel “Piru, kreivi, noita ja näyttelijä by accident; I was just browsing in the library when the old-style font on the spine of that book caught my eye (one of the things that attract me, as I've mentioned before). The novel is set in the 17th century, my dear husband's favourite era, so I borrowed the book for him. He never read it though, so I – a greedy, curious creature that I am – decided to read it instead. I didn't fall in love with it, but I liked it well enough to want to find out what else Kanto had written. And there was this book about the Finnish Civil War in 1918 (yes, way too modern a period for me!). More particularly, it is about the women who joined the “Red Guards” and fought in the war. Immediate interest. It is also a subject of which I knew very little.

The story isn't beautiful. It's brutal. The women who had dared to take up arms... let's just say the endings they got were far from the "happily ever after". Kanto describes how the women ended up joining the “Red Guards”: how some hoped that the labour movement, with its goal of improving the workers' conditions and rights, would also make women equal to men. How, for some, it was a necessity (as the factories were closed down, women lost their jobs, and they had children to feed – the Guard members were paid and they received food and clothes). Some had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Many of these women were very young: some of the girls were only 14.

It seems impossible to describe the horrors of war, yet Kanto does it and by doing so, she breaks your heart. The cruelty a human being is capable of – and what that cruelty does to those who wield it – makes you despair. That could easily make the reading experience intolerable, but Kanto gives us humour, she gives us brave, resilient, yet very human heroines, but above all, a glimmer of hope – and often where you'd least expect it. Someone greedy and violent is stunned by the atrocities of war and, even against their will, ends up extending a helping hand. A truly spineless person is pushed to that one act of courage which may seem small but will have a tremendous influence on the lives of others.

I had just complained to a friend how books no longer touch me, but suddenly I had in my hands a book that brought tears into my eyes more than once and that I didn't want to put down. The story still lingers in my mind. I will want to read more about these women, and I hope there will be another novel, preferably historical fiction, from Kanto.

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