Finland’s universities are known worldwide for their high-quality education, and Finland is consistently ranked among the world’s most literate nations. It comes as no surprise that its rich cultural tradition in folklore and storytelling is reflected in a diverse, formidable literary canon. From Tove Jansson’s much loved creation, Tales from Moominvalley, to darker fiction like Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers, the country’s literary achievements paint a colourful picture of Finland as a nation. If you have considered going abroad to study, here are eight of the best books that will make the idea of studying in Finland irresistible:
Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson
Beloved across Europe and the world by adults and children alike, Swedish-speaking Finn Tove Jansson published this collection of short stories about the Moomins in 1962. A family of peculiar-looking, whimsically-sketched creatures, the Moomins face many troubles instantly recognisable from real life, turning a creation that seems like a fairy tale into an outlet for philosophical dilemmas and keen satire. The Moomins might seem like unlikely spokespeople for feminism but they have recently been adopted as part of an Oxfam campaign to empower women all over the world. With many of the female Moomins based on women from Jansson’s life, Tales from Moominvalley challenges traditional gender roles in a way that is humorous, poignant and always magical.
Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo
Johanna Sinisalo, who studied literature and drama at the University of Tampere, is best known for writing sci-fi and fantasy, although according to her, “categorising literature by genre should be left behind”. This is particularly apt in her novel, Troll: A Love Story, which blends real life with aspects of Finnish mythology, transcending everyday reality and shattering genre expectations. Written in short chapters mixed with extracts from folklore, web and news articles, and religious texts, both real and fictitious, this book is based on the assumption that, far from being mythical beings, trolls are real, although nearly extinct. Using this premise and the blurring of the boundary between science fiction and realism, Sinisalo explores themes of otherness and alienation, and sexuality and gender in human society.
Seven Brothers by Aleksis Kivi
Published in 1870, this is the oldest novel on the list and is widely recognised as a Finnish classic, if not the great Finnish novel. Seven Brothers was Kivi’s first and only book, written in Finnish at a time when Swedish was the dominant language of the educated classes. Although it later proved to be hugely influential, Seven Brothers faced harsh criticism at the time and was famously described as “a blot” on Finnish literature. Through the lives and development of seven brothers, Kivi’s depiction of rural Finnish life in the nineteenth century has been lauded as scathing, honest and to-the-point.
The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Taking a “skewed and skewering look at Finland”, The Year of the Hare is the darkly hilarious tale of a jaded journalist who rescues and befriends an injured hare, journeying around Finland with it peeping out of his backpack, encountering many colourful characters along the way: a killer bear, a pagan ski instructor, a diplomat’s wife, and, last but not least, the Russians. Quirky and charming though this tale undoubtedly seems, it is defined by biting sarcasm and episodes of farce; a satirical glance into the absurdity and contradictions of Finnish society and a wry, dry example of the sharp, acerbic nature of Finnish humour.
The Unknown Soldier by Väinö Linna
Never expected to be a commercial success but now a renowned classic, translated into twenty languages and with multiple film adaptations, Linna’s The Unknown Soldier tells the story of the largely forgotten Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Linna set out to write a realistic, gritty account of war, basing much of it on his own experiences with the aim of dispelling the myth of the noble, blindly obedient soldier so prevalent in Finnish literature. There is no single hero in this novel. Instead, Linna employs multiple viewpoints of characters from all over Finland with different backgrounds and political opinions to form the story of a Finnish Army machine gun company in Karelia.
Under the North Star series by Väinö Linna
Actually not just one book, the Under the North Star series is another well known creation of Väinö Linna. It is the story of multiple generations through multiple wars and the inevitable clash of different beliefs in the course of a politically turbulent century. With a unique tone that has contributed much to the Finnish language even today, Linna weaves a matter-of-fact, business-like attitude into the tragedy of war and the casualties of politics, presenting the reality and characters of twentieth-century Finnish history as dark, humorous and, above all, deeply human.
Purge by Sofi Oksanen
Outspoken feminist and social commentator, Sofi Oksanen, considers herself well-placed to write about the often hidden aspects of life in Soviet Estonia, the quasi neighbour to Finland across the Baltic Sea. From a Finnish-Estonian background, Oksanen spent her childhood summers in Estonia and later studied literature at the universities of Jyväskylä and Helsinki. The highly rewarded book Purge is a difficult, deeply emotive novel; its title alludes to Stalin’s deportation of Estonians suspected of collaboration during the German occupation of 1941-44. Oksanen moves beyond the straightforward narrative of war to explore how collusion, resistance and past trauma bleed through generations, manifesting themselves in private nightmares of sexual violence and brutal moral ambiguities.
My First Murder by Leena Lehtolainen
This is the first book in a series featuring detective Maria Kallio, and the first crime novel by writer Leena Lehtolainen - who actually graduated from the University of Helsinki with a thesis about Nordic crime literature. My First Murder is the ideal novel for fans of “Scandicrime” who want an ambitious, smart protagonist. Maria, a young law student in Helsinki, is offered a temporary position with the city’s police. The story begins with the murder of a member of a student choir - and the suspects include students that Maria herself knows from university. Unravelling this sinister case, she simultaneously fights to prove herself to her older, more experienced colleagues.
These novels by a selection of very different authors reflect an intense and diverse image of Finland, from gritty and realistic to whimsical and magical. Give them a read and prepare yourself to study in Finland!