We Sinners

  • Hanna Pylväinen
  • Henry Holt and Co.
  • 208 pp.

In conveying the conflicts that beset members of an obscure religious sect, this debut novel probes the tricky territory of what it means to be family.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

“You know, the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church.” So says Matthew, the boyfriend of Tiina, one of the nine Rovaniemi children. It astounds her that he can observe so keenly a truth that eluded her. Matthew’s observation is also a fitting summary of this debut novel about a deeply religious family living in Michigan, and a testament to Hanna Pylväinen’s budding skills as a novelist who can reveal powerful insights in succinct yet elegant statements.

Matthew’s statement comes halfway through the novel, but its implications are evident from the first page. The novel’s 11 chapters, presented as vignettes that bring to mind the approach employed by Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge, give most members of the large family a chance at a voice. The Rovaniemis belong to the fundamentalist Laestadian church, which forbids dancing, drinking, television and contact with “unbelievers.” But of course, nothing is simple as they attempt to negotiate their way in the outside world without losing faith.

The family is part of a small community of families of Nordic descent who practice their religion in near obscurity. For the children, it leads to teasing and shunning at school, where their parents encourage them to associate with and ultimately marry others within the church. As they age, they’re inevitably pummeled by doubts that work to undermine their faith, in some instances leading to outright abandonment of the church. In the individual chapters, we follow the Rovaniemis as they routinely engage in self-confessions and mutual absolving of sins outside of formal rites. Though Laestadians can be viewed as extreme, the Rovaniemis are struggling with many of the same issues that most American families face to varying degrees as they raise children and contend with the influences of society.

Pylväinen’s characters tell their stories about faith and doubt at various stages of their lives with a sincerity that will resonate with anyone who has ever rebelled against family expectations. Tiina is the most defiant, using conference travel as an excuse to visit her out-of-state boyfriend. Brita, the oldest, feels the disappointment of losing friends and being called “brainwashed” as her life hews closely to her religious instruction. Nels drinks and parties while away at school, but ultimately shakes off his revolt and returns to the church. And Uppu, the youngest, is alarmed by her boyfriend’s drift into the church. His conversion, initially an effort to get close to Uppu, forces her to confront her faith and make the difficult choice—between belief and disbelief—that her siblings have already faced.

Like any family divided by beliefs and attitudes, the Rovaniemis struggle to understand one another while remaining connected as best they can. Though the family manages to reform in an imperfect yet believable way each time a child leaves the church, the fractures remain and deepen. After a fire at the family’s home, one daughter visits briefly to help sift through the ashes, but her loyalty turns to rage at her parents’ inability to express sincere regret when one of their sons, Simon, loses his partner of six years. Brita, whose voice seems the most affecting and genuine, tells her story twice, and in the second telling we see her weariness, her dissatisfaction with the life she chose. Her desperation is so profound that even a piano key she presses emits no sound. All, including parents Warren and Pirjo, are trapped by family they love but who smother each other amid essential questions of belief or disbelief.

Family is a defining characteristic in our lives. Those we’re born to and grow up with help outline our initial selves and leave an indelible mark on who we become as we form our own beliefs and attitudes. Pylväinen captures this truth beautifully in characters who have the added complexity of religious fanaticism. As a lapsed Catholic, I’ve fought similar familial battles, but I’ve never felt alone: There are plenty of lapsed Catholics with whom to share experiences. Not so for these characters—rooted solely in family and the Laestadian community—as they struggle to come to terms with their lives and beliefs. What comes next after they leave? In We Sinners, Pylväinen mines the question with insightfulness, writing with precision about the emotionally convoluted nature of family.

Captivating as a whole, the book falters in the last two chapters, which deviate from the novel’s overall structure. One tells Uppu’s story from the perspective of a friend; the other shifts the narrative back to 1847. The inclusion of outside voices is jarring in a novel that has focused on the intimate perspectives of a single family. And the final chapter does little to conclude the Rovaniemis’ story. We get insight on the origins of the faith and the doubts that have always plagued its believers, but it fails to give us closure in a Rovaniemi voice.

Despite this flaw, the novel succeeds by creating absorbing voices that capture the tricky territory of negotiating between the comfort of home and the reality of moving away from religious beliefs. We’re left knowing that this family, like all, will continually fracture and then stabilize, wracked by small temblors until another eruption causes a greater divide. Although we never see the Rovaniemi children rejected outright by members of their family, their relationships are fraught with a tension that’s at once disheartening and normal. Yet there is, throughout the novel, an underlying sense that the family will endure through an awkward process of healing that manages to reconcile fundamentally different attitudes about what is good and bad. The beauty of We Sinners lies in its extraordinary ordinariness.

Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of The Independent.

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