Review: ‘The Red Book of Farewells’ by Pirkko Saisio

the red book of farewells

Some literature, like The Red Book of Farewells, echoes in the ears of its readers long after it has been written. Talk of its mastery of a particular element of the craft, its pioneering break from literary conventions, or its willingness to dive head first into a taboo conversation — perhaps one that had yet to be sparked — may be the perpetual buzz of these conversations.

This is to say, sometimes a work of art can hone one or maybe two elements of its craft so compellingly that this alone is enough to keep it relevant and breathing in the minds of its admirers for decades to come. 

Pirkko Saisio’s translation of her soon-to-be-published book of autofiction, The Red Book of Farewells, is a remarkable patchwork of narratives and literary devices in which every element is not only expertly expressed, but is a key player, baking up something of its own class entirely. 

If you’re looking for an easily categorized story in The Red Book of Farewells, you won’t find it here. There are not one or two shining literary devices carrying this book. Nor will you find a regurgitated narrative of a traditionally focused story arc. 

What you will find are mingling and intimate reflections on criminalized love during an LGBTQ-intolerant time in Finland, expressions of leftist politics that helped decriminalize homosexuality, Saisio’s burgeoning path as an actress and playwright, and personal grapplings of identity, love, and loss. 

In The Red Book of Farewells, readers weave in and out of different eras in Saisio’s life, disturbing a sense of linear time. All the while creating thought-provoking contrasts of Saisio’s sense of self, who and what she holds dear, and who or what she is ready to relinquish. 

Though the genre of this book is autofiction, it could almost read as an epic narrative poem with Saisio’s intentional use of form, repetition, and attention to prose. A fine example of this is Saisio’s interior reflection on her second great love, Havva, whom she’s just beginning to notice,

“Havva is the chosen one, and she knows it. Havva is a dam that gathers all the lost and wildly flowing waters behind her, transforming them into a constructive force for the dictatorship of the working proletariat. 

Havva is a bud on a tree that has the blood of the working people flowing through its trunk and branches that carry the fruit of the Soviet Union, The German Democratic Republic, Cuba, and all of their hardworking people. 

Havva is a brick in a wall that will rise higher than any wall ever built by humankind before. That brick may be small and inconspicuous (certainly not!), but if someone makes the mistake of pulling it out, the entire wall would collapse.” 

Saisio manipulates psychic distance with artful plays on first, second, and third-person narrative shifts throughout this book. In earlier recounts of her life, when being a lesbian was criminalized in Finland, the narrator mostly speaks of herself in the third person. 

When the narrator is battling a dark depression after a devastating break-up that leaves her adjusting to single motherhood, she shifts to the second person. Sometimes, mostly when the narrator appears calm and confident, readers are taken into a first-person narration. 

Other times, she utilizes third and first-person narrative. Saisio does this when she begins to notice the first woman she develops romantic feelings for, “She (I) vaguely noticed a girl with soft, pale skin who walked down the columned hallways of the university in a black velvet cape.”

To add to Saisio’s authority of blending a plethora of literary devices with equal amounts of precision and care, Saisio’s craft of world-building (and credit is certainly due to Saisio’s translator Mia Spangenberg here, too) deftly mirrors her interior experiences throughout this read,

“Bladder wrack sways in the depths. A small perch 

frightened by my shadow zips under a rock to hide. 

Honksu jumps onto the burning rocks in her bare feet. 

“Watch out for snakes!” 

That’s what you’re supposed to say when coming ashore 

on an outer island. 

Watch out for snakes. 

Remember to watch out for snakes. 

So… don’t forget the snakes.” 

The stories comprising The Red Book of Farewells are many things. They are poetries. They are critical and personally intimate experiences of Finnish LGBTQ history. They are love stories. 

They are stories of stepping in and out of one’s skin. They are stories of motherhood, daughterhood, personhood, and stories of the gains and unforgettable losses of one’s heart. They are multidimensional and oh-so-worthy of your full attention.

Pirkko Saisio’s The Red Book of Farewells, translated by Mia Spangenberg, will be published by the Center for the Art of Translation’s Two Line Press and will be available for purchase on April 25, 2023.


Leave a Reply