Storytelling through the dark night: Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot


Elina Hirvonen’s first novel, When I Forgot, is meant to be read with a glass of deep burgundy merlot in hand and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings playing in the background. With a slow, thoughtful European sensibility, the piece presents characters who contemplate their place within their families and the universe while nursing novels and cups of coffee.

History and contemporary politics serve as backdrops throughout the novel, with war and social discontent presented as constant external forces separating people from one another. The September 11th attacks hasten the heroine Anna’s brother’s mental breakdown, while introducing fear and unease into the general population. Subsequent peace marches and the progressive movement lack the ability to change individual lives and families for the better, even while working for peace on an international level.

Ian, Anna’s English professor boyfriend, reflects upon his alienation from two generations of global activism. Remembering feeling alone as a small child during the Vietnam War while his mother marched with assorted hippies and his father came back traumatized from fighting, he is then stigmatized as an American at a Finnish anti-Iraq war protest after Anna leaves to protect her seriously ill brother. Anna also struggles to find her way as an individual in the chaos of a family shaken by her brother Joona’s teenage rebellion and mental illness. Putting her family aside, she focuses on her work as a journalist and her relationship with Ian. However, neither character can truly shut out and forget the external influences upon their lives: Ian is tormented by guilt over not rescuing his father from the veterans’ hospital or at least visiting him before his death, and Anna repeatedly enters into relationships where she dates and cares for struggling men, in lieu of coming to see her older brother.

Ian views his work as a literature professor as a means to remember: cultural history, values, ideas, our sense of who we are found through the collective wisdom of others’ stories. However, can one remember the past well enough to honor and learn from it without becoming trapped in painful memories? Does one have to forget to heal and forgive? In a sense, each main character ‘forgets’ something or someone of importance throughout the novel: Anna neglects to visit Joona, her father ignores how his own bad temper and his violence born of fear aggravated Joona’s condition, Ian forgets to come see his father once he realizes the man will never recover from post-traumatic stress, Ian’s mother and stepfather wait two weeks to let him know of his father’s death, and Ian’s students ‘forget’ he is simply one individual lost in challenging times and attack him as a representative of the American government’s policies.

However, Hirvonen suggests that through the power of language, through articulating and mutually sharing one’s painful memories in a safe environment, one can ‘remember’ in a safe way by finding words to share one’s experiences. Anna and Ian discover a special bond where they are able to speak of their pasts, where they realize they are not the only people affected by violence, war, or mental illness. Through their mutual confessions and through the novel Mrs. Dalloway, a story of how a British woman finds the strength to deal with reality, the characters link and incorporate their personal stories into the broader narrative of human experience, enabling them to step back from their pain enough to heal, forgive, and take action.

A story told in sparse language and delicate sentence fragments, set amid the snow-spattered cafes and apartments of Helsinki, When I Forgot shares its philosophical commentary while never neglecting its individual characters or its unique setting. Some of the events near the end, when both characters confront their pasts, seemed a little out of place and silly: Ian’s public belching, for one. However, the majority of the novel relates the characters’ pain, growth, and self-discovery in a natural, honest way, encouraging compassion and awareness of others around oneself.

Elina Hirvonen’s When I Forgot is available on and at a variety of bookstores, including Pleasanton’s Towne Center Books. Discussion questions and a reading guide are available here, from Tin House Publishers: