Merja Mäki: Before the Birds

“We’ll be back in Karelia. By spring, before the birds.”

Author: Merja Mäki
Finnish original: Ennen lintuja
Publisher: Gummerus, 2022
Genre: upmarket fiction
Number of pages:  416 pp.
Reading material: Finnish original, English sample, English synopsis

Rights sold: France, Leduc; Sweden, Historiska Media; Ukraine, Astrolabe

It’s February 1940 in Finland’s eastern province of Karelia. Alli flees the bombing of Sortavala and skis across frozen Lake Ladoga to the island where she was raised. She has two wishes: to escape the war and to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fisherman despite of her mother’s firm resistance.

But life does not respect Alli’s wishes. The Winter War ends in a heavily bought peace that cedes much of Alli’s beloved Finnish Karelia to the Soviet Union. She must leave her home behind and embark on an onerous trek across Finland to the western coach. When she gets there, she must endure alms from her father’s kin, unfamiliar customs, and her work at a military hospital.

Back In Karelia, only empty shores await the migrating birds. Can a fisherman’s daughter accustomed to the crashing waves and incessant winds of Lake Ladoga lay down roots amid the flat expanses of Ostrobothnia? And what makes a place home – love for others or familiar landscapes?

Merja Mäki’s stunning debut adult novel won the Torch-Bearer Prize, given to the novel with the most international potential in 2022.

“Before the Birds draws us in, putting us at the mercy of Lake Ladoga’s waves and the frigid winds of its shores. It violently jostles us into an icy sled ride under dark skies. It has our stomachs hollowing out in hunger. It forces us to continue persevering at the mercy of others without hope or any promise things will turn out for the better. And the book does all this with such force we are battered as we are swept along in the flow of events. […] Merja Mäki’s language is expressive and interesting. The text smolders with emotion.”
– Kulttuuritoimitus culture magazine

“Mäki does such a vivid job leading the reader on the evacuees’ journey that one feels one is there oneself, freezing and feet covered in bloody blisters. […] The novel expands my understanding of what it means – and how it feels – to leave everything behind.”
– Helsingin Sanomat newspaper

About the author:
Merja Mäki