The structure of Hanna Pylväinen’s debut novel, We Sinners, is of the type that causes critics to invoke words like “kaleidoscopic”. It’s a story about a single family told from multiple vantage points over an amorphous, unspecified length of time. The details and dialogue are usually high context; one shouldn’t feel bad if she has to go back a page or two to double-check if she has missed a plot development.
Amidst this flurry of anecdotes, details, and images, Pylväinen orchestrates a singular vision of a family that, while united by its roots in the Laestadian religious tradition, is fundamentally broken at its base. This family, the Rovaneimi, oscillates between careful fear and dead devotion.
While the novel may seem “kaleidoscopic” in that it has overlapping narratives that create a cohesive story, the title We Sinners hints at why, exactly, that descriptor isn’t accurate. Because of how fragmented the Rovaniemis are, this novel is extremely individualistic, despite its multiple third-person examinations. The “we” in the novel’s title is at simultaneously misleading and on point; there isn’t really a “we” here, though if there’s one thing that can conceivably unite these broken people, it’s their weighty, portentous view of sin.
The Rovaniemi—comprised of parents Warren and Pirjo and children Brita, Tiina, Nels, Paula, Simon, Julia, Leena, Anni, and Uppu—do not all commit to the Lutheran-based religion passed down to them, yet it inescapably effects each person—whether they want it to or not. Pylväinen, who herself grew up in a religious community similar to the Laestadians, has written a novel that to some will come off as anti-religious given how frankly it reveals the tragedies and limitations wrought from such rigid devotion to faith.
Yet it’s that same experience—which led her to leave her faith—that gives this novel the sympathetic perspective that’s wholly necessary, especially considering how reductive and un-nuanced the debates surrounding religion and atheism have been constructed in the post-Dawkins philosophical landscape. (One need look no further than the passage in this novel when Tiina’s boyfriend Matthew tries to convince her with such flat lines of logic.)
Classifying the religion of the Rovaniemi as a “cult” would be misleading, but a similarity between the two does arise in the way the Laestadian faith, in its praxis, leads to a stripping of individuality for the sake of a greater goal. It’s this trait that Pylväinen zeroes in on, and the result is the 11 vignette-like chapters of We Sinners each of which resonates with a unique meaning while remaining reined in on the cold, devout world of the Rovaniemis.
The subject matter of these stories is both timeless in their religious implications and contemporary in their political relevance. Especially harrowing are the chapters that involve Simon, who in an accidental turn of events comes out to his mother, which naturally drives his parents further away from him. “Your child being gay was one of those things that happened to other people,” Pirjo thinks to herself, “like fires, car accidents where they needed the Jaws of Life.”
In the chapter on Julia, Simon’s boyfriend of several years dies, and though some of the siblings come to the funeral, Warren and Pirjo both refuse. This leads to the novel’s most heartbreaking scene, with an explosion that the whole story has been leading up to: “Why aren’t you here?” Julia demands of her parents. “Why do you have to be such sanctimonious assholes?”
This outburst is remarkable particularly for the way it intrudes upon Pylväinen’s internally-focused third-person narrative. As Chuck Palahniuk points out, it’s an oft-overlooked crutch for writers to rely on “thought” verbs—things like “wants”, “desires”, “thinks”—when trying to show the internal struggles of their characters. This is frequently an issue for We Sinners; there’s lots of talk of what characters imagine and think, which in several instances is unnecessary given Pylväinen’s ability to reveal what’s going on inside through smartly chosen details. Take this passage from the chapter on Warren, where he is unable to get his daughters to stop playing with a gift from a co-worker:
You didn’t hear me? he said again, through gritted teeth. He felt something in his mouth crumble. He felt with his fingers—his crown had broken. On his fingers were bits of gold and dirtied tooth, and he bellowed out, mute, crude, like a beast with no gift of speech.
There’s a nice shout-out to the last lines of James Joyce’s short story classic “Araby” in this paragraph, but more importantly it reveals a complex set of emotions and frustrations without saying Warren thought a particular thing. Thus, when passages like this one about Tiina having sex with her boyfriend show up, it’s quite surprising:
And so they spent two days in bed, a bruise forming slowly at the top of the inside of her thighs, and she felt validated, like she had some concrete proof of what her transgressions had bought her.
The clause of that sentence, while a good way of putting Tiina’s feelings, makes the meaning explicit where there could have been more ambiguity. By saying precisely how Tiina felt about this relationship, Pylväinen removes an incentive for the reader to draw closer in to Tiina’s mind.
Yet at the same time, some reprieve must be given to Pylväinen for this type of prose. The type of characters she’s writing about are ones who, due to the tenants of their belief, must often remain silent on issues where they would otherwise feel compelled to speak. Participation in a religion with such strict limitations means that room for dissent or individuation from the core of the faith is practically impossible, as it would mean expulsion from the community—and, even worse, distancing from one’s family.
As a result, the many “controversial” beliefs and actions of these characters, be it acceptance of a gay brother, having premarital sex, or rejecting the faith completely, can never be truly expressed out in the open; this is why the aforementioned scene involving Julia and Simon is so powerful, despite the multiple inner views Pylväinen provides to the reader: it breaks the silence these people have been long forced to keep. A family as large as the Rovaniemis cannot truly live within a world so small. “You know, the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church,” Tiina’s boyfriend Matthew tells her.
“It’s so much easier to be snarky about God than to be sincere,” Pylväinen tells Fiction Writers Review:
Sincerity is the hardest to capture of almost any emotion, and to have characters who sincerely believe in God, or to have moments of faith, moments of belief… sincerity is hard both because we’re in an ironic age, but also because it’s hard for sincerity not to feel cheesy and it’s hard to not make those characters seem silly. And yes, of course, the danger is how easy the snark is.
The beauty of We Sinners comes in this very quality. A lot of dirty laundry about religious denominations like the Laestadians is aired out, but never in a way that reads like an anti-religious treatise. Undoubtedly some will be driven further away from any sense of religion upon reading the trials and tribulations of the Rovaniemis, and in many ways they aren’t wrong for doing so. Religious faith of this type goes beyond the general notion of the affirmation of a so-called “higher power” and guns right for people’s deepest insecurities, turning something as innocuous as listening to soft rock into a channel for hideous sin.
However, having experienced faith of this type before, Pylväinen doesn’t focus on the legalistic, abstract laws of Laestadianism—that business is best saved for theologians and philosophers—but instead the real, everyday suffering that arises from the basic fact that no one is born free. Telling NPR about leaving her family’s faith, Pylväinen says, “I was free, I had thrown off the shackles of this oppressive church… and actually I was going through a tremendous mourning. And I think it’s that exact feeling that the rest of the world didn’t understand, that to leave these communities isn’t freedom.”
Whatever circumstances a person is born to will shape her existence in ways both manageable and inescapable; these restrictions can be religious or irreligious. We Sinners is an intimate evocation of the harsh truth that severing one’s childhood ties is an action far from rebellious. In cutting loose, one only reveals all the hurt that’s left in its wake—the hurt no one ever asks for, the hurt no one can run away from.