cover image The Parson’s Widow

The Parson’s Widow

Marja-Liisa Vartio, , trans. from the Finnish by Aili and Austin Flint. . Dalkey Archive, $13.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-56478-483-4

This frugal novel from the Finnish Vartio (1924–1966), is set in a Finnish village (“near Viipuri”) during the early 20th century. The mentally unstable title character, Adele, argues with her maid, Alma, about the fire that consumed the parsonage, and soon moves on to other topics. An obsession with a set of stuffed birds—passed down from the parson’s uncle to the parson, to his wife and, finally, to Alma’s care—serves as a major focus, with ample space devoted to addiction, sexual violence, the color of Alma’s scarf on the day the Alma and Adele first met and Adele’s criticism of Alma for her treatment of the birds. That last inspires Alma to tell a face-saving lie: that a rare, stuffed swan resides in her family home. The tale feeds Adele’s mad obsession and leads to a shocking final conflict between the parson’s widow and her maid. With a masterful judiciousness of detail, Vartio manages to make the slight scenario take on a great deal of weight. The perpetual conflict is as affecting as it is absurd. (Jan.)