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lip lit: riikka pulkkinen, true

True by Finnish author Riikka Pulkkinen is a tender and heartbreaking examination of secrets families keep from each other, and how even if we try to file it away, the past always informs our present.

The novel centres around a family who gather when the matriarch, Elsa, is dying of cancer and wishes to live out her palliative care at home. Surrounding her is her husband of 50 years, the eminent artist, Martti; her physician daughter, Eleonoora; and her two granddaughters, Anna and Maria, who are experiencing the heartache and wonderment of becoming women.

When Anna finds a dress in her grandmother’s old wardrobe, she discovers it belongs to Eeva, who used to be her mother’s nanny. Elsa then reveals a family secret: Martti and Eeva had an affair.

The novel then alternates between the present day and the past as it explores themes such as passion, possession, love and betrayal. The past sections are narrated by Eeva, who explains why she was seduced by Martii, and how she fell in love with Elsa and the young Eleonoora. The present day charts Elsa’s deterioration and the consequences of the affair being revealed. However, at the heart of the book, it’s about Anna’s struggle to allow herself to love again, while grieving for what she has lost in a former relationship.

There is so much to love about the book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Pulkkinen has a knack for sharp observations and turns of phrases, and the complex themes are explored with grace and care.  However, while the majority of the characters leap off the page, the characterisation of the adult version of Eleonoora was lacking, and there didn’t seem a point for Maria’s existence.

All in all, True is a beautiful novel about motherhood, longing and loss. It’s a dreamingly languid book full of gentle reveals, and it is extremely compelling.

Scribe Publications, $29.95

Riikka is appearing at The Sydney Writer’s Festival, details of her sessions can be found here 

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