Cast a Long Shadow – Short Review

Leena Lander (born 1955) is one of the most notable contemporary Finnish authors. She does not shy away from exploring some of Finland’s darkest moments in history and turns them into beautiful, engaging pieces of literature.

Her most famous book (I think) is Käsky published in 2003. In this book she dares to investigate a period of Finnish history that has like no other scarred and divided Finnish society. Even my Finnish mother-in-law was told never to speak about the Finnsh Civil War and only Lander’s book made her face this event that had unhinged families – hers included. Käsky was so successful that it was turned into a movie in 2008; the English title of the movie is Tears of April.

Unfortunately, hardly any English translations exist of her work but if you are lucky enough to speak another language like me, you can find a German, Italian or Spanish translation of her work (probably more but those are the only ones I found). However, an English translation of her 1986 novel Lankeaa Pitkä Varjo exists and its English title is Cast a Long Shadow. I read the book in German like all the other books I read by Lander (I just bought another one about the Civil War and cannot wait to read it) and although I must say that it is not nearly as gripping as Käsky, it is worth reading it.

Cast a Long Shadow tells the story of Nils Psilander a 17th century judge on the now autonomous, demilitarised archipelago of Åland which is situated between Finland and Sweden. Åland is monolingually Swedish speaking but belongs to Finland. As mentioned the novel is set in the 17th century when both Finland and Åland were part of Sweden.

Nils Psilander’s task during this novel is presiding over various witch trials and over the course of the novel he starts doubting not only himself but also law, religion and the community, especially after he falls in love with one of the “witches”. However, if you hope for a nice romantic read with a happy ending then this novel is not for you. Lander is not famous for happy endings, probably because she is too dedicated to portraying the realism of Finnish history.

The most fascinating part of this novel are those few chapters in which the fictional writer of Psilander’s story can be found in her home arguing with her subject – Psilander. Psilander is like an apparition haunting her and at one point she ponders killing him off just to get rid of him. She even suggests he commit suicide. In spite of her repulsion towards her subject and her conviction that he is a despicable murderer she cannot help herself and lets him invade her life. She lets Psilander tell her his story and explain to her why he did what he did.

So, if you’re interested in history and/or psychology, I highly recommend you get a copy of Cast a Long Shadow and immerse yourself into 17th century Åland. It gives a good insight into the psychology of the time, the motivation behind the witch hunts, the impact of religion on law but also shows how a writer can be possessed by his or her topic with sanity and day to day life beginning to suffer.

Title picture of Kastelholm from http://www.visitaland.com

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Sartenada says:

    Many Finns speak many foreign languages – me too.

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  2. Megan says:

    Wonderful review. I’ll definitely check out the book. Are there other Finnish authors that you recommend?

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    1. Debra says:

      I recommend Leena Lehtolainen’s Maria Kallio novels if you into crime fiction. They’re really good. I recommend them even if you’re not into crime fiction because they include so much more like current problems in Finnish society, women’s issues, racism etc etc Marjaleena Lembcke is a Finnish children’s book author who writes in German about Finland, dunno if there any translations. She is amazing. I am someone who generally loves reading children’s books, esp the classics like Ende, Kästner, Milne, Lindgren, Blyton (you get the gist), and her books just speak to me the same way those classics do. And don’t forget Tove Jansson. The Moomins – do I have to say more? My dad is a big fan of Arto Paasilinna as he is quite simply a fun read. Kjell Westö is on my to-do-list but I have no experience with his books yet. I could ask my hubby if he has any more suggestions as he is the Finn in the house.

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      1. Megan says:

        Thank you so much for this very comprehensive answer! I’ll try to track down Lembcke for sure. Any book that is comparable to the Neverending Story is a must-read for me.

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      2. Debra says:

        If you haven’t already I would recommend reading Momo by Ende which I think is far superior to the Neverending Story (although the latter is of course a masterpiece as well). Topic wise you cannot compare the two authors but the feeling it creates in you when you read it is equally satisfying – If you know what I mean.

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