We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen

2nd Oct 2012


As such, the latter category tend to have their own opinions about said religions, and they are not always kind.

From the very beginning of her début, We Sinners, Hanna Pylväinen addresses ideas of brainwashing, prejudice, and cultic environs with empathy as well as a critical eye.

We Sinners tells the story of the Rovaniemi family, a clan of eleven who belong to a fundamentalist sect of Finnish Christianity.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member, the parents included, and chronicles two decades of their relationships.

Some family members are given more of a voice than others; some are never allowed to share their story directly, and this inconspicuousness lends itself well to a dysfunctional dynamic where everyone is already keeping secrets.

Pylväinen pays particular attention to the personal flaws and failings of the individual characters (the sort we love to see in the supposedly pious).

What is best about We Sinners is the nuance of the relationships; in a family of 11, there can be no uniform feelings towards one another, or towards the religion the family belongs to. What Pylväinen understands so acutely is that faith or lack of may connect family members, but a relationship cannot be built on that.

In what may feel like familiar territory (fans of White Teeth will be particularly struck by the penultimate chapter), Pylväinen manages to distinguish herself with her sense of balance in her ensemble cast of characters.

None ever read like caricatures, none are ever exaggerated in either their faith or lack of.  The most rebellious teen of the lot still comes across like a genuinely rebellious teen.  And when different children step far outside the line, it is their decision and not their parents’ that determines their future in faith.

If there is one thing that doesn’t quite work in We Sinners, it’s the final chapter.  Though that vignette provides context for the religion that governs the Rovaniemi’s lives, it would have worked better as a prequel, if at all.

As a final note, it’s disappointing, especially as 150 pages with that family leaves the reader wanting any hint as to what becomes of that clan.  Even without that final chapter, Pylväinen couldn’t possibly satisfy us, couldn’t possibly give us every detail of the lives of Rovaniemis.

With a family so large and so broken, there could never be a happily ever after; no ending could ever be satisfying and paradoxically, the reader must – and should – be satisfied with that.

We Sinners was published in hardback by Henry Holt on 21st August 2012 and is available from Amazon, Foyles or your local bookseller.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended for: With its interwoven narratives, We Sinners reads as much like a series of short stories as it does a complete novel, so should please fans of that form equally.  And an interest in religion — critical or sympathetic — will be necessary to really appreciate this book.

Other recommended reading:  Zadie Smith’s incomparable White Teeth is another brilliant telling of intergenerational family relationships as complicated by religion.  For a personal account of life inside the Hasidic Jewish community, try Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox.

Amanda Farah