Philip Teir’s The Summer House, which was first published in 2018, has been translated from its original Swedish by Tiina Nunnally. The Telegraph regards Finnish-Swedish author Teir as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’, and says that he has a ‘remarkable eye for human behaviour’.
In the novel, married couple Erik and Julia ‘marshal their children into the car and start the drive towards the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend their summer.’ They are going to be staying at the summer house in Mjölkviken which belonged to Julia’s grandparents, the first time in which the family have stayed there all together. Outwardly, Julia and Erik, along with their twelve-year-old daughter Alice and ten-year-old son Anton, appear to be a ‘happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.’ However, each character is rather apprehensive about what the summer may hold. When focusing on Anton’s perspective, Teir writes: ‘Two whole months. That was an unimaginable length of time for Anton. When he thought about how it would seem when they came to the end of their holiday, he couldn’t really picture it. The summer months quickly flickered past before his eyes.’
Beneath the surface, unspoken things are simmering. The threat of unemployment hovers over Erik, who oversees the IT of a department store, and he feels unable to tell his wife. The arrival of novelist Julia’s childhood friend, Marika, at a summer house closeby, ‘deepens the hairline cracks that had so far remained invisible.’ There are also hints of Julia’s struggle to write a new novel. Alice and Anton are beginning to have a growing awareness of how complicated the world around them is, and have to learn to deal with it in their own ways. Alice is becoming increasingly self-conscious, and Anton has many anxieties about the world, and his relationship with his mother. Each concern which Teir gives about the family members feels realistic: Anton not knowing whether he enjoys being out in nature; Alice’s lack of connection to the Internet, and by extension her friends, in a place with so little mobile phone coverage; the parents’ awareness of themselves and how they behave when in the company of others.
I found the novel’s short prologue, in which a young and as yet unnamed boy is sitting in the car, the ‘safest place to be’ during a thunderstorm, with his mother, and the opening line of the first chapter intriguing. The Summer House proper begins: ‘Julia would turn thirty-six in the autumn, yet she had never truly managed to escape her mother’s voice.’ Julia’s mother appears as a secondary character later on in the novel. Other characters – for example, Erik’s brother who has been travelling in Vietnam – are added into the mix, and add heightened tension to both the novel as a whole, and the relationships which it depicts.
At first, Teir has left things unsaid, and unexplained. There is a clever building of tension, and of a foreshadowing of things to come, however. When focusing on Julia in an early chapter, Teir writes: ‘As she walked through the hall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was surprised to realise she looked good in a rather stern sort of way. So this was how a single mother looked, this was how she would look from now on, when they became a family of three.’ She is continually surprised by her husband, and also dismayed by the way in which their relationship has shifted. Of her husband, Teir observes: ‘She was always struck by how real Erik was when he was at home, as if there were two Eriks: one she would be cross with in her fantasies, and a real Erik, who talked to her and had opinions that required her attention.’
The sense of place in The Summer House has a vivacity and sensuality to it. Such emphasis has been given to the plants and animals which now surround the family, who feel such a world away from their flat in Helsinki. Teir writes, for instance, ‘Anton looked around. Everywhere he saw blueberries and lingonberries growing. The trunks of the slender pine trees shifted from grey to reddish-brown where animals had gnawed away at the bark.’ There is a real sense of atmosphere which develops in the novel, both with Mjölkviken and its nature, and within the family. Teir focuses on the ways in which each family member interacts with the world around them. When writing about Alice, he says: ‘The water was cold, but Alice didn’t care, because so much was going on inside her body. She moved slowly, languidly, like in a film, as if surrounded by some sort of membrane that protected her from everything.’
The structure of The Summer House is simple, yet effective. Teir follows each of the family members in turn, alternating between them. Each chapter is quite revealing in its way. The backstory of Julia and Erik has been well developed, and the way in which their marriage has changed over time appears believable. Interesting and complex relationships are demonstrated between family members, as well as with Marika and her family. The Summer House has been well situated socially, too; through the use of Marika and her husband Chris, who are ‘eco-warriors’, he manages to ask a series of searching questions about the environment, climate change, and other global concerns. Again, he situates each character within a wider scope: ‘Erik liked to think of himself as a progressive optimist, but lately it felt like everyone around him had become pessimists. The climate crisis, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the newspaper crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, in the EU, the crisis within the Social Democratic party… There was no area of society that wasn’t in crisis. And in Finland people were especially good at crises, as if they didn’t feel truly comfortable unless everything was going to hell.’
I was wholly engrossed within The Summer House, a short novel which runs to less than 250 pages. Teir really seems to understand each of his characters and their motivations, and the ways in which they interact with one another feel true to life. Teir’s prose has been well translated, and the story is a highly accessible one. The Summer House is a relatively quiet novel, in that not a great deal of action occurs. It is, instead, focused upon a cast of three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters, and how they connect with one another.