Sunday, September 30, 2012

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen

 You know what's great? When you sit down and write a review of a book, and looking back on it discover that you liked it even more than you thought you did.  We Sinners is just such a book.  I appreciated it while I was reading it, and read it fairly quickly, but by the end, I didn't love it, just that sort of meh feeling one gets when one doesn't have really positive or really negative feelings about a book.  Having sat down to review it, though, I can safely say that We Sinners had much more of an impact on me than I thought.  Honestly, this is one of the great things about writing book reviews, that upon further reflection you can much more out of it than you would if you just read a book and walked away.  This ever happen to you?

We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen is the story of the large Rovaniemi clan, Warren and Pirjo, and their nine children.  More than that, though, it is the story of their faith, a fundamentalist version of Christianity that originated in Finland, Laestadianism.  (Hmm, if I'm trying to make this sound captivating, I'm failing, aren't I?  Give me a few minutes, I'll get there.)  The Rovaniemis' church is impressively strict, demanding that its congregants forgo dancing, TV watching, drinking, listening to popular music, and using birth control.  In the tradition of some evangelical churches, it relies on lay preachers rather than the formally educated and ordained.  The church community is small and insular, and rather more a main character in Pylvainen's story so central is it to her characters' lives.

In We Sinners, Pylvainen explores the Rovaniemi family member by member, from those who embrace their faith whole-heartedly to those who can't wait to escape to a world free from the narrow confines of it.  It probes the psyches of both parents who each question their dedication to God, Warren when he faces the possibility of being called upon to preach and Pirjo, when it seems like something so simple as a television set could derail her family's focus.  It follows the children as they explore the lives they've been effectively denied, dating boys outside the church, experimenting with drinking, finding themselves and being excommunicated from everything they've ever known because of the selves they find.  Some choose to leave, and some choose to embrace the church and the, strict, if comfortable way of life they have grown to appreciate.

Pylvainen's short novel is not short on profundity.  Many might choose to villify this church, but Pylvainen, instead, chooses to show a more balanced picture of the trials and rewards of faith and readers emerge on the other side of her narrative forced to decide for themselves which is the better way, if indeed there is one.  For some of the children, the comfort of living in a community with faith that they all have in common draws them in inexorably as they grow to adulthood.  For them, the longed for words of absolution become a comfort and a necessity.  Their large families rise up around them, for better or worse.  The others attempt to find solace in "worldly" relationships where it eludes them, they trade their family and faith for freedom, but find that freedom from their faith isn't all they ever dreamed.  All find themselves haunted by the faith of their childhood and, it seems, that none find exactly what they're looking for at the end of either path.

We Sinners is a quiet but powerful book that explores the vagaries of a commanding faith from inside and out.  Pylvainen's prose is stark but illuminating, shining a light on a topic that rarely gets so much balanced attention.  While Pylvainen briefly explores each of the family's members to great effect, the focus always remains on the fundamentalism that both unites and divides and how the choice to stay or to go always leaves someone standing on the other side of the glass wondering if they failed to choose the better way.  We Sinners' portrayal of faith might not be for everyone, but anyone who wants to understand what makes a fundamentalist Christian family tick would do well to give Pylvainen's thoughtful debut a look.

Thanks to the publisher (Henry Holt) for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest revew.


  1. That sounds very thought provoking. I think writing about or discussing a book makes you appreciate it more.

  2. Wow, this sounds really interesting and intense. Really great review today - it's a book I would probably never look at otherwise!

  3. You do make it sound captivating, I enjoy books that have religion as a theme. This is something I want to read as soon as possible.

  4. I just grabbed this one from Amazon Vine, and like the sound of it even more after reading your review.

  5. I love books like this--definitely going on my wish list. Thanks for writing about it!