Elsa is dying of cancer. Her husband Martti, a successful artist, and her ambitious daughter Eleonoora, who is a renowned surgeon, are struggling to cope with the impending loss. In spite of their immense, largely independent professional success, neither Martti nor Eleonoora are able to comprehend life without Elsa. A commanding presence who held her family together prior to her illness, Elsa, a famous psychologist, aims to do just that during her last few weeks, electing to stay at home instead of in hospice care. Eleonoora’s daughter Anna decides to care for Elsa in the aftermath of the dissolution of a relationship. Anna is very deeply depressed, not because she misses the man (she is living with a man who she does love), but because she began to think of the man’s child as her own. Caring for her grandmother seems like the perfect distraction. However, Anna finds herself more immersed in the psychological drama that silently shaped her mother’s childhood and mirrors her own life in strange and unexpected ways. True, by Riikka Pulkkinen, is less about a family’s struggle with cancer, and more about the mind’s ability to create false memories and a family’s ability to restructure in the face of loss, and how sometimes it’s hard to recover from the same loss twice.

One afternoon when Anna is drinking wine and having a picnic with her grandmother, they decide to play dress-up. Anna appears wearing a beautiful party dress she found in the attic. This drudges up a slew of old, unpleasant memories for Elsa. Elsa begins to tell Anna about Martti’s affair with Eleonoora’s nanny Eeva, who the dress belonged to. Two storylines begin to unfold: the family coping with Elsa’s impending death and Anna coping with her breakup and her inability to visit with her ex-boyfriend’s young daughter, and Anna’s identification with Eeva, who suffered from similar feelings after her relationship with Martti was cut short by Elsa discovering about it. Anna begins to invent Eeva’s life in her own mind, and it soon becomes difficult to divorce Anna’s feelings and creations from her own memories.

We soon find out that Eleonoora’s mind is playing tricks on her as well. Elsa, a successful psychologist, travels a lot during Eleonoora’s early childhood, and many of her early memories of her mother are not in fact Elsa but instead are Eeva, but Eleonoora has no way of remembering this: she was too young at the time, and Elsa has reinforced her false memories by providing false information. The lines have blurred between Eeva the mistress and nanny and Elsa the biological mother, creating one woman who raised her: Mom. The day trips she took with Eeva and Martti while Elsa was away on business have firmly established Eleonoora’s memories of her mother, although it is not actually her mother. The following passage, narrated by Eeva, illustrates one false memory in particular:

Later she [Eleonoora] remembers this boating trip, although she remembers nothing else from the whole summer. She builds memories from the words of others, but she tells her own daughter about this trip, as if it’s a precious thing—the nicest part was Mom and Dad and I went out in the boat to the island. Mom usually rowed, but Dad did sometimes. The sun was a friendly fire in the sky, it felt like the world had always been nothing but light and water and melted Fazer chocolate in a blue wrapper and I could lick it off the foil to my heart’s content.

Eleonoora has unknowingly been shaped during her childhood by Elsa, who was able to gather her daughter’s fragmented memories and reform them into a singular mother. However, this uses Eleonoora’s difficulty coping with Elsa’s death, after already having become estranged with Eeva, as a means to explore the bonds between mother and daughter, and how easily they can be altered by providing inaccurate information during the formative years. Eleonoora was confronted by the loss of the second half of her maternal figure, which shows how sometimes the mind and the heart falsely establish memories as coping mechanisms, seeking to avoid the pain of loss that Eeva and Anna ultimately shared by becoming estranged from individuals they grew to love. However, because Elsa protected her daughter (and by extension Martti) from this first crucial loss, Eleonoora is unequipped for the more significant loss of her real mother—which is really where the story begins.

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By Riikka Pulkkinen
Translated by Lola Rogers
Reviewed by Aleksandra Fazlipour
368 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9781590515006
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