Sisu’s Winter War by Liisa Kovala

A twisting journey through time and place, exploring family, relationships, war, and memory, Sisu’s Winter War is a historical novel focused on Meri, a Finnish woman who is shaped by the First Soviet-Finnish War, and the ripples that spin across her life throughout the decades. Kovala alternates time and place, jumping from Meri as a teenager and young woman in Finland during the war, to her life in later middle age, in Canada, where she is the guardian of her granddaughter, Katia. Throughout the novel, Meri peels back the totality of her story, with the sections focused on her life in Finland when she was young dealing the war and the loss her family bears, and the sections in Canada dealing with her life as it came about in Canada, including the long lines which connect her to the activities of the war.

This is not an easy novel to read. It is often bleak, even more so than one might expect from a war novel – Meri’s family seems to be collectively born under an unlucky star, and the tragedy visited on them throughout the novel is relentless. Starting with the death of her mother in childbirth, Meri’s story is one of a girl who has to grow up too fast, and then one flung into a war before she’s an adult. But her story is also one about the pain of memory: her memories are often difficult and tragic, and even in Canada, as a grandmother, she still bears their scars. And then she starts having lapses of memory, getting lost, forgetting things: Meri has early-onset Alzheimer’s. 

For me, the portrayal of Meri as an older woman with dementia was the most powerful part of the book, and the most striking. Kovala did an excellent job with writing the shifts in memory, the confusion, and the reactions of family – it felt incredibly real, and very in line with my own experiences, as a family member of someone who had Alzheimer’s. Additionally, part of the charm of Sisu’s Winter War is the slow piecing together of Meri’s story from the clues she drops in the different sections. It’s a slow burn of a novel, so it was challenging to get into at first, particularly with the shifting timeline. Overall, this novel was a tender look at family, trauma, memory, and what forms love can take throughout time.

Liisa Kovala is a Finnish Canadian author and teacher. Her first book, Surviving Stutthof: My Father’s Memories Behind the Death Gate (Latitude 46, 2017), was shortlisted for a Northern Lit Award and published in Finland under the title Stutthofin selviytyjä (Docendo, 2020). Her work is inspired by her Finnish heritage and the northern landscape she calls home. Sisu’s Winter War is her debut novel. She lives in Sudbury, Ontario with her husband and two children.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Latitude 46 (Oct. 2 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 350 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1988989477
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1988989471

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Alison Manley has ricocheted between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for most of her life. Now in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she is the Cataloguing and Metadata Librarian at Saint Mary's University. Her past life includes a long stint as a hospital librarian on the banks of the mighty Miramichi River. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. While she's adamant that her love of reading has nothing to do with her work, her ability to consume large amounts of information very quickly sure is helpful. She is often identified by her very red lipstick, and lives with her partner Brett and cat, Toasted Marshmallow.