On the Shoulders of Otava by Laura Mauro
PS Publishing, hrdbk, £15.00
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Some of my favourite books on the shelves in Hunter Towers are novellas from PS Publishing written by the likes of the late Joel Lane, the late Graham Joyce and tales by Jeff Vandermeer, Nicholas Royle and Conrad Williams, so it’s great to see them bring out a new line of novellas under the imprint, Absinthe Press, edited by Marie O’Regan. Among the first offerings is “On the Shoulders of Otava” by award-winning writer, Laura Mauro, drawing on the true-life, but little known, exploits of the Women’s Guard during Finland’s Civil War between the Reds and the Whites in 1919. Mauro merges wartime experiences with Finnish folktales and legends. Many of which involve creatures which dwell in the woods, which is bad news for Sirri Tuokkola and her comrades as they skirt around the edges of battles and atrocities, especially as Sirri and her livewire, fellow soldier, Ester, have to enter the forest looking for a colleague who has disappeared into the trees
Fighting for a cause isn’t all it was made up to be, and Sirri finds it hard to get memories of atrocities she has witnessed out of her head as she and her friends struggle to stay alive. They are ill-equipped, and not very well regarded by their male colleagues and find themselves well down the pecking order when it comes to the basics of survival – shelter, food and safety. Being taken alive by the enemy isn’t something you want to happen, not that the males on your own side are to be trusted either, especially when one male soldier starts staring into the trees in the middle of the night with a haunted look on his face before he tears the throat out of another soldier. Is he mad, suffering from rabies, or is there a more sinister, supernatural reason for his actions?
Almost stream of consciousness, and bordering on the edge of being in a hallucination, or perhaps a nightmare, with poetic, and occasionally staccato prose, Mauro takes you right into Siiri’s head as she finds it hard to trust her comrades, a young girl she rescues and ultimately herself as the weight of myth and legend bears down on her. Has she succumbed to being “ghostlit”, and lost to the lights of the forest in a world where there are only trees, snow, and noises and the doubts echoing in her own head?
Told effortlessly over 5 chapters, each starting with an excerpt from The Kalevala, the epic 19th-century collection of Finnish oral folklore and mythology, On the Shoulders of Otava, takes the reader into a time and place they probably knew nothing about, and in her acknowledgements, Mauro tells the reader where they can find out more about the exploits of the women in the Red Guard. On the Shoulders of Otava is a fine start to PS Publishing’s new imprint, and if the rest of the novellas are as good as this then we are in for a treat, and I know one thing after reading it, I’m going to try really hard not to look over my shoulder when out walking the dog through the trees this winter, or follow any lights.