Wednesday, 14 July 2010
The Burnt Out Town of Miracles
The story is set in Finland during the ‘Winter War’; a little known conflict between Finland and the Soviet Union which began in late 1939 and ended less than four months later. Unwittingly caught up in the fighting is the main character; a young Finnish logger named Timo, who stubbornly refuses to leave his home town despite the imminent arrival of the Red Army. Timo is captured by the Soviets and, because of his extensive knowledge of the surrounding woodland, is put in charge of a small group of Russian misfits who are tasked with collecting firewood. It is not long before Timo forms friendships with his co-workers and is soon torn between loyalty to his new found friends or his Country.
Timo is not an easy character to understand and his motivations remain a mystery throughout most of the book. Early on in the story we learn that he is generally considered by people he meets to be simple minded;
“...the man who had spoken to me, and who was obviously an officer, returned and asked if I was the village idiot...I answered, quite simply, yes, I suppose I was”
Timo is not stupid by any stretch of the imagination but he is certainly strange. I believe he may be suffering from some form of autism but it’s hard to tell. He seems distant and detached. He views things that happen to him as someone apart, looking on as a witness rather than having any personal feelings either way. By way of example halfway through the book he is accused of being a spy for the Finns and savagely beaten. When he recounts this story he does so as whimsically as if he had taken a walk in the park not been beaten black and blue but it’s not bluster or bravado; he just doesn’t seem to be concerned. Timo is almost completely without fear even in the face of imminent death and seems remarkably oblivious to danger or threats. He always speaks his mind even when it is very ill advised to do so and rarely mentions how he is feeling. Timo’s unashamed honesty and inability to know when to shut up, often lands him in hot water. He regularly pushes his luck with the Soviet soldiers and more than once I thought he was about to be shot for his insolence;
“’Then you’ll have to tell him’ I said, nodding towards Fjodor, ‘that I think he is a coward and I don’t trust him’
Nikolai was taken aback
‘Do you mean that?’
‘Yes’ I said
‘I know you mean it but if I say that he’ll be even more difficult to deal with’
‘Do it anyway, then he’ll know you know he’s a coward too’"
The Russian prisoners he befriends are more ‘normal’ and much easier to relate to. They behave much the same as anyone in their position and their rag-tag nature is appealing, the true underdogs of the story. They are guided by Timo, an unlikely leader, who does his best to protect them and look after them however due to his detachment his feelings towards them aren’t always clear.
I liked the way the book kept you guessing and the setting was very well put together. The cold, barren landscape was easy to visualise and the fight for survival was convincing. The characters are interesting and their plights are easy to empathise with.
I was less impressed with the main character Timo, because of the way he was it was difficult to empathise with his position and I never felt as though I got to know him. I never understand why he does the things he does or why he decides to show the Russian loggers so much compassion. The war itself was hardly ever mentioned except in passing which I think was a shame as it could have added more tension to the story if there had been some combat involved. Some of the characters felt superfluous and I did not like the way the story ended.
Overall despite a few very well written ideas ultimately this book disappointed me due to its unreadable main character, unanswered questions and limp ending.
Final Verdict 2/5