Saturday, 22 August 2009

Housewife

Here's the text of a recent review. The book concerned is Kreetta Onkeli's Kotirouva (Sammakko, 2007, 224 pp.):

The author describes her book as a rakkausromaani, or romance novel, but it is really a sardonic and realistic portrayal of an artificial relationship that eventually breaks down under the psychological pressure and need for authenticity that are experienced by the central character. It is Kreetta Onkeli’s third novel, and it represents a significant evolution of her earlier style.

Sirre Määttänen is a 30-year-old hospital cleaner who lives alone in a one-roomed apartment in Helsinki. Behind her she has a career as an artist and painter, but has given it up, just as she has given up her dreams of finding a suitable partner and starting a family. At this low point in her life she encounters a lost child who turns out to be the daughter of a businessman, Assar Elo, who is looking for a woman to run the domestic side of his life for him. Sirre exchanges her hospital job for a new one as a housewife – she sees the relationship in practical terms, as a form of employment and a way to realize her dreams of a family.

The new “job” is not without its complexities, however. Sirre, who has now acquired financial security but is also financially dependent on her husband, settles down to the task of creating a family home in the expensive and spacious apartment Assar has bought. She immerses herself in glossy interior design magazines and becomes an expert on the latest consumer fashions, organizing the redecoration. At the same time she has to live with Assar and Vita – something of a challenge, as Assar is a dominating and aggressive male chauvinist who spends most of his time at the office but expects his home and wife to be ready for him when he returns, and Vita an uncertain and selfish pre-teen with a growing array of needs and problems that require constant attention. Quarrels are a regular occurrence, yet Sirre wants to make a success of Vita, seeing her as the daughter she never had, and wants to give her everything — too much, in fact.

Sirre’s old watercolour paintings are stored in a furniture warehouse, and Assar has the idea that they can be used to make money, by creating a series of postcards. But the paintings turn out not to be suitable for the postcard project, and so they are destroyed, in order to save money on the storage costs. Sirre’s life develops into a kind of nightmare, as physical demands are compounded with emotional ones to create a prison-like net of limitations and constraints which prevent her from living her own life as an individual. Yet even though she has possibilities, she doesn’t make use of them. Years earlier, she painted a watercolour on the theme of cancer which became nationally known, and the city’s cancer relief foundation wants her to deliver a talk about her painting. Yet she turns the offer down, and when eventually she tries to break out of the net by returning to work as a cleaner at the foundation’s office, the director recognizes her – her painting is hanging there in a special ceremonial spot.

Sirre does everything to close off the avenues that might bring her the opportunity of fulfilment, yet the new life she has chosen is even more restrictive. Assar and Vita are completely absorbed in the problems of their own personal development, and Sirre gives her life to two people who are incapable of valuing it. In the end, as Assar is openly unfaithful with other women and Vita becomes increasingly sulky and withdrawn, Sirre is returned to herself, alone.

The style of the book is laconic, and the sentences are either short in themselves or built from short phrases which give an impression of breathlessness and stress. Although the description is vividly realistic, reproducing many facets of the visual and tactile reality of life in a big city, it is also characterized by an element of otherness and alienation: familiar scenes and places are presented in terms that make them seem strange and almost other-worldly. This effect is linked to Sirre’s growing sense of estrangement from herself, as she grapples with the impossible task of living the life of a traditional “housewife” – a role which in contemporary society has become obsolete and no longer offers a viable route for women who seek identity and self-esteem. At the end of the novel, Sirre remains an enigma, both to herself and to the reader.

Kreetta Onkeli doesn't judge her characters, but presents them as they are, with their conflicts and personal flaws and problems: her criticism is reserved for a social environment that is perceived as hostile to individual aspirations and genuine human development. This portrayal of life in a big city would be understood anywhere in Europe or North America today.

David McDuff

1 comment:

  1. Nice review that of yours. It seems like a good portrait of that ancient quotation about being careful with what you wish, as everything has its cost.

    ReplyDelete

Please try to keep comments on topic.