Book Review: The Winter War by Philip Tier

Image by HÄN

Image by HÄN


For his debut novel The Winter War, Finnish writer Philip Tier chose a topic closer to home. The story focuses on the life of a renowned sociologist Max Paul’s life in Helsinki with his wife Katriina, who works in the capital’s health recruitment service. Despite all the attributes of the privileged social position: two beautiful daughters Eva and Helen, respectful careers and a big apartment in the city centre, the couple’s relationship is beyond miserable, with petty arguments at home and fake loving smiles at public events.

Both Max and Katherina are trying to fill this void outside their marriage. Katriina seems to care much more about throwing the best parties and renovating her kitchen that the fact that her husband spends all nights arguing with strangers on online forums. However, his affair with Laura, a journalist who is twice younger than Max, is something that Katriina could not possibly close her eyes on. By the end of the book, which is essentially a year-long account of this troubled marriage, the divorce papers are already signed.

The Winter War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union between the 1939 to 1940, also lasted only a year. Yet the mark it left on the country’s history is difficult to underestimate. Comparing a domestic dysfunction such as divorce to this major historical conflict might feel ignorant, and yet it is a perfect illustration of the sense of entitlement that the main characters are displaying throughout the narrative.

The author’s critique of the conventional family extends to the next generation. The couple’s spoilt views are passed on to their daughters: at 29 years old, Eva attempts to escape reality by running away to study art in London, yet finding herself in an abusive affair with her married school teacher in the midst of the disorganised Occupy movement. Meanwhile, Helen is constantly analysing her married life as a vehicle though which in her eyes “individual personalities were erased, and all the families looked exactly the same”.

Despite the melancholic depictions of the shortcomings of this Finnish-Swedish family, the author’s dark humour manages somehow to brighten up the narrative, with Max’s anecdotal attempt to improve his sexual stamina with yoga deserving a particular mention. Moreover, there is still hope for at least some of the characters, especially Helena and her husband Christian, who managed to find themselves again thanks to their new friendships, which slightly warms up this otherwise paralysingly cold and ruthlessly intelligent critique of the modern middle class.

Words by Kira Kolosova.