Peirene Press week – White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen – Review

Published by Peirene Press

Publication date 1  March 2015

Translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah

Source – review copy


“What does it take to survive? This is the question posed by the extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm.

1867: a year of devastating famine in Finland. Marja, a farmer’s wife from the north, sets off on foot through the snow with her two young children. Their goal: St Petersburg, where people say there is bread. Others are also heading south, just as desperate to survive. Ruuni, a boy she meets, seems trustworthy. But can anyone really help?”

Marja has made the difficult decision to leave her dying husband behind as she sets off with her children. Her aim, to get to St Petersburg, where she believes there will be food. She must do something other than wait for what seems like inevitable death from the famine that has ravaged Finland.

As I read this book I was again left marvelling at the skill of a writer such as Aki Ollikainen to create such a world, and such a moving story in so few words. Words are in short supply in the novella and so are not wasted, each sentence carefully constructed to add a layer to the tale.

It plays as a film in your head as you read it. Colour is stripped bare, the white of the winter snow sapping colour from the surroundings and the people who inhabit it. I envisaged the bleak landscape and treacherous journey of Marja and her children in shades of black, white and grey.

This is not a novel to read if you are looking for warmth, fun, a happy ending. it left me with a lingering sense of sadness. It is bleak, harsh and moving, much like the winter described in its pages. Marja, driven by the need to protect her children, goes through terrible hardship and grief and a reader must be made of stone not to feel for her.

The title is apt. It represents the hunger that drives a woman, and others, to take their families and leave their homes, trudging through dangerous weather, and dangerous times, in the hope of finding little to eat. It also represents the harsh winter of 1867, of the insatiable appetite of the snow to destroy crops and food, and to swallow up unsuspecting travellers when given the chance.

This book is Peirene title no.16 and is part of the Chance Encounter trio of books. The theme of encounters moves throughout this novella, how chance encounters can change the course of a life. I’m keen to read the other books in the Chance Encounters theme and will do so soon.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Such a powerful, beautifully expressed novel – spare yet lyrical. You’re absolutely right about the way it plays out like a film in your head, Janet


    1. janetemson says:

      I only realised this morning when I was thinking of my review. I’d imagined all of the book in black and white and could see it as a film playing. Glad its not just me who found that 🙂 I agree with you – spare yet lyrical.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    To my eteral shame, I still haven’t got around to reading it, but it sounds like my kind of story… bleak, sad, frozen… Thank you for an insightful review.


    1. janetemson says:

      I do think you’d like it. I read the majority of it last night. The beauty of Peirene books is that they transport you to another world but do so in a short space of time. I hope you enjoy it when you do read it.


  3. Great review Janet. Agree… powerful and with such brevity yet maintains a lyrical feel which showcases this as an incredibly gifted translation. How interesting you & Susan saw this one play out like a film… I just remember feeling the cold & desperation acutely. And how terribly sad & poignant, despite its 1867 it is very relevant to today’s refugee crisis


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Poppy. Yes it does have a timely resonance to it. It is a sad and moving story, even more so that it could still apply today.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great review! I really like the sound of this one although it sounds incredibly sad.


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Cleo. It is very sad, and bleak but totally fitting with the story. I do hope you enjoy it if you read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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