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An astonishingly assured and compelling debut, When I Forgot explores the relationship between a sister and her brother, the past that they share, and the painful memories that shape their lives forever.
Anna is on her way to the hospital where her brother has been institutionalized when she falters, and in that pause her world splinters in a blazing display of memory and madness, of childhood security treasured and shattered, and of families blighted by psychological trauma—her brother's and that of her boyfriend's father, a Vietnam vet. September 11 serves as a backdrop for the story, and the Finnish perspective on America and its politics is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. In Elina Hirvonen's skillful hands, the grimness is illuminated by firecracker insight and surprising beauty. And, above all, there is hope.
“Potent, fragile and tender, When I Forgot is really the story of ‘When I Remembered,’ of a woman summoning the courage to unlock her memories and share them, and feeling the relief of exhaling breath held too long.”
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review (cover)
"The story of two young people, one Finnish and one American, each with their own tragic pasts, and their journey together to understanding."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Excellent and evocative...What is most remarkable about this novel, aside from its honest, simple prose and compelling storyline (it's difficult to stop reading), is that Hirvonen maintains a real sense of optimism throughout this meditation on love and war."
—Katja Pantzar, The Globe and Mail
"When I Forgot is tightly structured and coolly narrated, with a dispassionate voice that makes its extremes of emotion that much more affecting."
—Alison Hallett, Portland Mercury
"An amazing, intense, lyrical account of two parallel lives and their wonderful love affair. The swift clarity of the prose, the beauty of the images, and the wise observations make this novella a fantastic pleasure."
—Josip Novakovich, author of April Fool's Day
"Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot, winner of Finland’s most prestigious literary award, is a haunting and skilful novel of families blighted by psychological trauma and a sister trying to protect her brother from the past."
"Elina Hirvonen is not a woman to shy away from big subjects and contentious issues….written in crystalline contemporary style, When I Forgot has become the most translated debut novel in Finnish history, its dark themes of breakdown striking a chord in the post 9/11 world it depicts."
—Tina Jackson, Metro
"A powerful book…a frayed, tender account of the love and unwilling co-dependency of Anna and Joona and, to a lesser extent, their parents. A fine study in role-reversal between parent and child, older brother and younger sister, and a wrenching read for anyone who has witnessed someone close suffer mental breakdown."
—Catherine Taylor, Guardian
"The chasm that Anna creates, between her imagined idyll of family life and its darker, more demanding reality, forms the poignant backbone of Finnish writer Elina Hirvonen’s debut novel." —Zena Alkayat, Metro
"No previous Finnish novel has had such international success as When I Forgot; its intelligence and power make this deserved."
—Paul Binding, Independent
"Elina Hirvonen has a style that is uniquely spare and strong and she uses it to weave a powerful pattern of tension and resolution that makes the pulse race even when nothing much seems to be happening… At only 180 pages, this is the perfect super-novella for those wishing to install themselves in a warm café and step into somebody else’s head for a day. And there is even something like a happy ending."
—Melissa Katsoulis, FT Magazine
"Elina Hirvonen's first novel, When I Forgot, shows how a family can suffer from the mental illness of one member. Her book, which has become the most translated debut novel in Finnish history, illuminates a dark corner of Finnish society… There could be no better setting for a story of bitter love. Finland's granite tundra inspired its national epic, The Kalevala, where light comes into a darkened world, and the often brooding music of Sibelius: it is a country of savage elements and ethereal beauty. Hirvonen uses the setting to illustrate her flawed characters, the pristine Helsinki streets with their 'stuccoed houses, tiny bars and delis.' setting them in relief. For Hirvonen, the contrast between the idealised Finland and its imperfect reality is not physical but psychological—but it says something about the country that a novel exploring one of its greatest problems can double as a tourist brochure."
—Caroline White, The Times
"This first novel is a slim but well-formed volume. At 180 pages it’s a day’s read, although many of the evocative situations Hirvonen conjures will remain in the mind for a lot longer."
"At once both forceful and heart-rending. Hirvonen writes calmly and lucidly, and this short novel is accessible to all. She speaks to a worldwide audience and deserves huge success in the UK and elsewhere. An exciting author and I for one greatly look forward to her next novel."
—The Book Depository
"[An] exemplary first novel…a book that whets your appetite for another one."
—Archie Bland, Spectator
"This apparently unpretentious book is in fact a sophisticated response to 9/11 and a delicately woven meditation on love and war."
—Hirsh Sawhney, TLS
"The problem with Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot is finding a place to stop. The narrative of this slender, lightning-fast Finnish novel, the most internationally successful debut novel in Finnish history, propels you along without the hint of a stopping point, one startling, violent or surprising scene feeding directly into another, or story within story unfolding accordion-style, part now, part later, with fragments of other stories unraveling in between."
—Booklist's Book Group Buzz
"[Hirvonen] captures this struggle and the role of memory in our lives with amazing grace and a crispness, or maybe an electrical current, that jumps off the page...the story is an amazingly quick and powerful read; it pulls you forward and flows almost naturally. This comes from the way Hirvonen seems to have so perfectly captured the way our memories and thoughts flow...It is an example of humane literature; language that both captures something about what it means to be human while at the same time illustrating the incredible creativity and skill that writers can bring to that quitesential human habit: the story."
—Kevin Holtsberry, Collected Miscellany
"A story told in sparse language and delicate sentence fragments, set amid the snow-spattered cafes and apartments of Helsinki, When I Forgot shares its philosophical commentary while never neglecting its individual characters or its unique setting."
"Terribly sad but also absolutely beautiful."
Why I’m happy
I’m happy because I have a steam engine (that works).
I’m happy because I have Daddy Mommy Sister Grandma and
got a Stiiga bike for Christmas.
I’m happy because I’m in the science club and when I grow
up I’m going to be an inventor and win the Nobel Prize.
I’m happy because I get to live my whole life in free and inde-
pendent Finland and because my Heavenly Father loves me
and takes care of me.
Joona Louhiniitty 3A
I can make it. This day.
There's the smell of sun-warmed dog shit and damp earth. A bent woman in winter boots from the eighties and a child in muddied jeans whose tongue darts out around his icecream moustache. There’s the long morning when you don’t
have to look at your watch.
There’s the café where you get old-fashioned coffee and thickly iced mocha squares and where you feel like someone’s just told you a secret. There are the clacking trams and the footdragging kids on their way to school and the grey-headed women who prop each other up as they cross the street. There’s the book I got from Ian. There’s Ian, who loves me.
There’s the book.
There’s the world I am allowed to enter. Three women on a single day in different time periods. The writer Virginia Woolf, who filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the water.
You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work.
I’ve read Virginia’s suicide note many times, but keepcoming back to it. What did the rocks look like? What wasshe thinking as she sank under the water? Did she have time, before losing consciousness, to regret what she had done?
I first saw Ian three years ago in a university lecture hall. He had been invited from Columbia University in New York as a visiting lecturer for the literature department’s Virginia Woolf seminar. Ian was fortyish, but looked older. He was in brown corduroys and an orange-yellow sweater and the same kind of bumpy-soled health sandals that my mother wore when we were small. He stood in front of us looking thin and a bit hunched, a glass of water in one hand and a sheaf of paper in the other, turning his head back and forth looking for a place to set them down.
The girls in long skirts and the boys who pulled their wispy hair back into ponytails talked loudly about literature (‘Orlando like totally expanded my sexuality, man’) and last night’s party (‘So I wake up on some fucking tech student’s floor and I’m like uh sorry’) and Ian kept saying excuse me, excuse me please to get everybody to quiet down. Finally he set down the glass and the pile of paper, stamped his sandal and shouted ‘Shut the fuck up!’
When Ian started to talk, we were all quiet. He sat on the table, pushed the papers aside, and took a sip of water. His gaze was intense and his voice deep and dark, as if someone were humming quietly just behind his words.
First Ian told us why he became a literary scholar. 'I'm convinced that it's important to remember. Only by remembering can we understand something about ourselves. But I happen to have a terrible memory. I wanted to fill in the gaps by stealing from others.' Ian looked away, took a drink from his glass, and began talking about this dazzlingly intelligent woman who lived a hundred years ago and who wanted to capture even the tiniest movements of the mind, to dive into a person's inner world in a way no-one had ever done in the history of world literature.
His voice tightened something in my throat. I wanted to raise my hand and tell him that remembering isn't really all that great. Memory is one of life's burdens that we can do nothing about. I wanted to stand up, make the note-taking and enthusiastic nods stop and shout that all I want is an escape from memory.
Ian's face flushed and his hands drew swoops in the air. His hands were thin and his wrists were hairy and I wanted to put my hand there too.
The phone rings before I get to the end of Virginia's letter.
'Where are you?' My mother's voice as doubting as ever.
'Transcribing an interview,' I lie. 'What?'
'Don't get angry. Could you please go see Joona?'
'I told you already. I want to make up my own mind when to go.'
'Yes, you told me. But it would mean a lot to Joona if you'd go now. He needs you. To get better.'
Oh fuck off. That's what I want to say. Fuck off and let me live my own life for once. But you don't talk like that to your mother. Not any more, now that you're grown up and living in your own place. Not to the mother who has to care for Joona like some gigantic child. Not to the mother who in her whole life never had a door she could lock against other people's intrusions.
'Joona is not going to get better.'
'He could be less unhappy. He says you don't care about him any more.'
'Joona asks about you all the time. What should I tell him?'
'You don't need to say anything. I'll go out there when I get this done.'
He says you don't care about him any more.
Where does he get off saying that? Where does he get off using a smarmy, crappy, hypocritical word like 'care'? Caring's been poisoned by children's songs and politicians. If only we could all just care about each other we'd all be happy happy happy.
But he's right, I don't care about Joona. What I feel for him is something else. Nothing warm or fuzzy or happyhappy. I feel more towards him than anyone else in the world. I wish he would just vanish and I'd never have to remember anything about him.
When I was born, the world was already full of Joona. He had golden hair, a bright voice, and a racing car covered with stickers, which he crashed over and over into the yellow painted wall of our room. One day the paint cracked into flaky figures and father locked the car in the attic.
Joona played sad songs on his brown plastic recorder and sat for hours with a picture book in front of him without turning the pages or saying a word. He dreamed of dropping me along with carrots, turnip cubes, and celery stalks into Grandma’s old iron pot and stirring my pink baby flesh into a savoury stew. On bad days he crept over to my white crib and pulled my downy hair out of my head with both hands. On good days he pulled a blanket over the table in our room and we crawled under it to play. We had a torch and mashed banana and played Jonah in the belly of the whale. Joona pulled me into his lap and rocked me back and forth. I imagined behind the blanket a stormy sea, on whose waves our whale would rock up and down for ever.
Joona’s golden hair and ringing voice are my first memories of the world. For a long time I was sure that Joona was the whole world.
On my plate there is a half-eaten mocha square and a ring of coffee left by my cup. The man at the table next to me stares into space and a tram clanks by outside the window. I close the book and run my fingers over its rough cover. I feel like apologizing to the people in the book.
When I was five and Joona seven, Father drove into our yard in an old hearse.
We were swinging with my mother. Joona sat alone on one swing and she held me in her lap in the other. When we heard the car horn, all three of us jumped up and ran to see what was happening. The car was big and black. The radiator grille had a big dent in it and someone had drawn a huge peepee in the dirt on a back window. I hoped my mother and father wouldn't see it. I tried to look like I didn't notice anything.
Father ran his fingers along the steering wheel. He had rolled the window down and 'Roadrunner' was playing on the radio. His hair was messed up in the back, he had unbuttoned his top shirt buttons and golden chest hairs curled up out of the opening. He drummed on the wheel with his knuckles to the beat of the music and smiled so wide his teeth showed. My mother's hand was hard and tight around mine.
'Henri,' she said. She sounded as if she had to make an effort to control her voice. Father closed his eyes and lifted a finger to his lips.
Father turned the music up and got out of the car. He smelled like he'd been at sea. He came up to us and lifted Joona and me in the air. My stomach flipped over.
'Let's go for a ride,' he said. 'A spring outing.'
Father pulled Mother close and I got squished in between. Father smelled of sweat and pipe tobacco and Mother of grass and her pink face lotion. Their smells mingled and plunged into me till I felt dizzy.
'Have dead people driven in that?' Joona asked. Father said they had. 'But they'll be happy to see a smiling boy in the back seat.' My mother didn't say anything. She turned away and I cried out, because at that moment I thought she would never come back. But when after a while she returned, she had put on a flowery Marimekko scarf and on her arm she carried a basket she'd bought at the market. In the basket were a bottle of juice, a package of cookies, and sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper. We climbed in the car, all four of us, Mother in the front seat next to Father and Joona and I in the back. The car's leather seats were hot from the sun and stuck to the backs of our legs.
'Maybe there's dead spirits in here,' Joona whispered. I thought of wrinkled old grandmas and grandpas sitting on the seat with us, nodding their tiny shrunken heads and eyeing the other cars for more dead people. The sun shone in through every window and when Joona sat in just the right spot, the peepee on the back window thrust up out of his head like a horn. Mother laid her hand on Father's thigh and I could see in the rear-view mirror how they both smiled a little. I turned around and knelt on the seat and waved at the bearded man in the car behind us, and laughed when the seat back hummed against my stomach.
We're a happy family, I thought. It felt like the sentence had flown into my mind from the page of a book. I imagined myself a rosy-cheeked pigtailed girl from a children's book, off on a huge exciting adventure for which someone had already written a happy ending.
Father drove fast. The front windows were open and an earthy wind blew my hair into my eyes. Mother clung to the hem of her scarf. Father honked his horn as he passed a Volkswagen beetle. The driver showed us his middle finger. Joona responded by making a circle with his thumb and forefinger and pumping his other forefinger through it. I stuck my thumbs in my ears and made a raspberry with my tongue.
'Henri,' Mother said quietly when Father passed a carrotcoloured Lada and two other cars. I saw her hand squeezing Father's thigh so hard her fingers were white. Father put his hand over Mother's and laughed. 'Ain't it great, kids?' he shouted over his shoulder. We mumbled something, because we didn't want them to get cross.
'Vad i helvete menar du?' Mother asked when Father passed a speeding sports car with its windows open and a motorcyclist wearing a leather jumpsuit: What the hell do you think you're doing? Mother always spoke Swedish when she didn't want us to understand. My stomach twisted and my skin got goose bumps, even though it was hot. I tried to take Joona's hand, but he had his clenched in fists and was staring at the back of Father's neck with a face as blank as a doll's.
'I'm enjoying life!' he shouted as if my mother were a long way away. 'You should try it some time. Just once!'
Then Father shouted: 'Shit!'
Something went crunch. As if someone had broken a small bird's neck.
I was on the floor listening to a banging noise coming up out of the car. The carpet smelled like wet dog. Joona breathed warm air onto the back of my neck. I scrunched my eyes shut and waited for someone to come and lift us out.
Mother was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Father said it wasn't serious. His shirt front was splotched with blood from her nose. At the top, where the shirt was open, the blood had dyed his chest hairs into reddish-brown clumps.
When the ambulance men helped Mother into the ambulance, he didn't say anything. I sat on the curb and wrapped my arms around my knees. I didn't say anything either. Or else I was screaming. I can't really remember.
'Mother was just in shock,' Father said. 'When she comes back, everything will be like before. She will probably look funny with her nose all bandaged up. But otherwise everything will be fine. Just like before.'
We were sitting at the kitchen table and Father was grilling hot sandwiches. Joona knelt on the chair on his hands and stared at the wall. He hadn't said a word all evening. Father set the steaming sandwiches in front of us. Ham, pineapple, melted cheese. When Joona picked up his knife to cut into his sandwich, Father grabbed his hand.
'Let us pray,' he said. 'Let us thank the good Lord for watching over us today.'
The chair banged on the floor as Joona jerked his hand away and jumped up from the table. His cheeks were red and he looked at Father as if not really seeing him.
'What if it wasn't God?' Joona asked in a grown-up voice. 'What if it was the devil going into you and driving like crazy?'
'What?' Father said. Red splotches appeared on his neck. 'What did you say?'
The radio beeped to signal the hour. A piece of paint the shape of a face had flaked off the wall. I took a bite of hot cheese. Tears popped into my eyes. I held the milk glass with both hands and drank. The milk ran cool into my mouth and all the way down to my stomach. It felt as if it were washing me clean on the inside. Washing me away.
1. The author has said that she wanted to write a book that handles difficult issues with a glimpse of hope and that gives the reader comfort. What do you think of the way the book touches themes like violence and mental illness? Do you feel that the characters of the novel have hope? Why or why not?
2. The U.S. invasion of Iraq plays an important role in the book. What do you think of the ties the novel makes between the characters’ personal experiences and the political and historical events around them? What do you think about the role of history and society in shaping our personal lives and the way we see ourselves as human beings?
3. What do you think about the love story between Anna and Ian? Is there space for love in spite of the difficulties?
4. What do you think about the novel’s intertextual references to Michael Cunningham’s novel ”The Hours” and Virginia Woolf’s novel ”Mrs. Dalloway”?
5. Ian, one of the main characters in the novel is an American living in Finland. In one scene, he goes to a party and meets a young Finn who seems to hold him personally responsible for American foreign politics. How do you feel about the novel’s portrayal on European attitudes towards Americans? Does it feel familiar to you? And what do you think of Ian’s character as an American living in Europe?
6. How do you feel about the novel’s portrayal of mental illness? What do you think is the reason for Joona’s condition? Based on the novel’s portrayal, do you think the attitudes towards mentally ill people or the possibilities to get help are different in Finland and USA?
7. One of the major themes of the novel is seeing somebody you love suffering and not being able to help. What do you think about the relationship between Anna and Joona? Why is it so difficult for Anna to visit Joona in the mental asylum? How is she trying to cope with the situation? Have you experienced anything similar in your personal life?
8. Does the novel portray an expectionally shattered family, or are family ties always somewhat problematic? Do you think family and difficult childhood experiences shapeaperson’s whole life, or is it possible to overcome them? Is there such a thing as a happy family?
9. How would you describe the language in the novel? What did you think of the language in Joona´s letters? What do you think of the relation between sometimes beautiful and poetic language, and the dark themes the novel touches?