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Book Review: When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen

April 24, 2009

When I Forgot - Elina HirvonenElina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot tells the truth about love, families, mental illness, and memory, doing so with detail and depth remarkable for a book of less than 200 pages. The linchpin in the incidents and feelings remembered by Anna, a young Finnish woman who reads Mrs. Dalloway in a coffee shop between flashbacks, is the love affair between herself and Ian, her American creative writing professor. She describes their relationship thus:

I’d never been able to imagine it: a love that felt so absolute that I could be teary and chaotic and rest on the assurance that someone would hold me and want me to wake up in the morning next to him.

For her, it is the first time in a relationship in which she need not always function as caretaker or co-dependent. She doesn’t need to clean up after him in the way she has with other lovers, the way women often feel pressured to do as mothers and mother-figures, the way her own mother desired to make a clean world only to have some men tell her it was impossible and others make it impossible.

The attraction between Anna and Ian begins with and builds on their similarities, which give them a possibility of deeper understanding but do not do all the work for the lovers. They first embrace after he reads a story of hers about her father behaving rashly and cruelly; his own father behaved similarly on returning from Vietnam. While Anna’s own father never served in a war, he did experience the war at home when his shell-shocked father returned from World War II. Ian’s father is institutionalized; Anna’s brother is. Both feel responsible, and both realize they cannot save their institutionalized loved ones after they see the planes crash into the World Trade Center. Hirvonen handles these scenes so deftly that one cannot say for certain to what extent if at all witnessing that piece of history led to that understanding.

Indeed, it is Hirvonen’s ability to interweave the historical and political with the personal in terms both causal and non-causal that give this narrative so much power. Besides the affects of war on both families, anti-war marches form a frame in Ian’s life. His mother takes him on protests against the war in Vietnam when he is an infant, and in Helsinki, he and Anna march together against the attacks on Iraq. Just as his and Anna’s similar pasts are not identical, however, the symmetry is destroyed by a nearly horrific surprise and by Ian’s own sense of shame at his nation’s actions combined with his anger over anti-American oversimplification. Ian’s need to defend overseas a nation with which he so often felt at odds reflects a common experience for expatriates.

Ultimately, what makes this book so poignant is that happiness always appears in the past, or as something just out of reach. For Anna, such memories become a burden, in part because with the happiness can be found hopes for the future that the present has shown cannot be; she does, however, in the end imagine how life could be if she had a brother with whom she could reminisce. For Ian, memories are desirable because he imagines that the ones he has lost contain happiness; he admits to borrowing Virgina Woolf’s, and he seeks to learn Anna’s memories as if he would borrow them too. For both, in the present, they find security and warmth in each other. This may be a happy state, but they will not call it that until the days pass into memory.

When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen; translated by Douglas Robinson; Tin House Books, 2009 (original copyright 2005, translation copyright 2007); paperback, 192 pp.

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