In this sensory, color-saturated novel by a master of historical fiction, a brickmaker’s foster daughter grows into an artist.
Author: Anneli Kanto
Finnish original: Rottien pyhimys
Publisher: Gummerus, 2021
Genre: fiction, upmarket
Number of pages: 409 pp.
Reading material: Finnish original, English sample, English synopsis
It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and a small village in southern Finland sees the arrival of a curious trio possessing special skills and knowledge: they are church painters in an era when artists were unheard of in the remote north. The arrivals are Master Martinus, who is responsible for practical arrangements, the stern, impatient artistic soul Andreas Pictor, and their apprentice, Vilppu.
The church-painting begins, but the scaffolding is shaky. There’s an accident, and Vilppu falls. A woman is called in to take his place: Pelliina, foster daughter to the local potter and brickmaker. To her fellow villagers, Pelliina is an odd duck who has the evil eye; to the painters, she is an artist in the making, a peer.
As the history of the world from Paradise and the Fall to the Final Judgment takes shape on the walls of the church, romance, envy, treachery, and crime occur, and a life reaches a turning point. One story ends and another begins.
Anneli Kanto, a master of the historical novel, has written a Künstlerroman about a woman who chooses to model her self-portrait on Kakukylla, the saint who protects against rats and mice.
Overlapping layers of rural life, artisanship, folklore, and Bible stories form a deep, vivid frame for the robust plot and delicate internal mood.
“Kanto’s work is quite the encyclopedia of medieval life. It leads us into the potter’s cottage with its pig-bladder windows, the bustle of the marketplace, complete with jugglers and strongmen, and the banquet tables of Häme Fortress. A pungent surge of sounds, smells, lights, work, and ingredients of the day crash into us. The evocative curses and insults would leave Captain Haddock of Tintin comic book fame a sorry second. Above all, The Rat Saint is the story of an artist developing to maturity, Pelliina’s coming-of-age novel, and a lofty hymn to forbidden, impossible love.”
– Helsingin Sanomat newspaper
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