Author: Arja Kajermo.
Illustrator: Susanna Kajermo-Torner.
Publisher: Tramp Press.
The debut novel of Irish-based Finnish writer Arja Kajermo, The Iron Age (2017), grounds itself in post-WWII Scandinavia. This coming-of-age story follows an unnamed girl as she and her family migrate from Finland to Sweden in search of work. Through the novel, life in rural Finland and urban Sweden are explored from the girl’s perspective. She also learns how to understand her PTSD father and the cultural extremities of both Finland and Sweden.
Set in the 1950’s, The Iron Age explores the strict domestic environment of the protagonist’s upbringing. Both her parents and her Grandmother are more often than not angry or cold. Their fixation of dark things affects the children as they too learn to be stoic and submit to their parents strict rules. The girl herself learns that if she stays silent, her father will not be angry, so she develops of code of silence. This presents the tense atmosphere of their household, where any little misdemeanour can offset the father’s mood.
The father, the patriarch of the household, is a very interesting character. Constantly brooding and easily angered, he reflects the affects of war on mental stability as it is suggested he is suffering from PTSD. His allegories of the war suggest he misses the certainty of the army and now, moving from job to job, feels emasculated with being disrespected in work. In a very short novel, his figure is explored in depth and raises important discussions about post-war masculinities.
Cultural differences between Sweden and Finland are also raised throughout the novel. As the family immigrate to Sweden the girl learns of how superior the Swedish are positioned and how superior they feel in comparison to the Finnish. In one instance, a teacher makes fun of the girl for her ethnic background. The novel cleverly explores the difficulties of learning a new language as the girl notes how strange Swedish sounds on her tongue.
Accompanying the narrative are the wonderfully hand-drawn illustrations by Susanna Kajermo Torner. All in black and white, the art pieces strikingly depict the various scenes of the novel and have a vintage feel, tying in perfectly with the period of the novel.
The Iron Age is a dark yet humorous novel that grounds itself in post-war Scandinavia, investigating ideas of culture, the home, and the nation among the people of Finland and Sweden. It is a story that is interestingly reminiscent of Ireland during the 1950’s, suggesting that although the novel is culturally specific, the story’s execution is universally relevant.