Pirkko Saisio: The Helsinki Trilogy

One of the all-time masterpieces of Finnish literature from the working-class writer, queer icon and renaissance artist Saisio.

Author: Pirkko Saisio
Finnish original: Pienin yhteinen jaettava (1998), Vastavalo (2000), Punainen erokirja (2003)
Publisher: WSOY
Genre: literary fiction, modern classics
Reading material: Finnish original, English translation (book #3), English samples (books #1 and #2)
Rights sold: Czech, Host; Dutch, De Geus; English (U.S.A. and Canada), Two Lines Press; English (UK and Commonwealth), Penguin Press; France, Robert Laffont; Germany, Klett-Cotta; Hungary, Polar; Romania, Pandora M; Slovenia, Škuc (book #3); Swedish, Förlaget M

Pirkko Saisio’s autofictional trilogy carries the reader through the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of a girl who wanted to be a boy and started calling herself “her” when she was eight years of age.

The trilogy starts with The Lowest Common Multiple (1998). In the beginning of the novel, the main character, “she”, is already a middle-aged mother. When her father dies, things get shoved o their place. Her memories take her back to her childhood in the 1950s – to a story, which is also about to change.

In the second novel, The Backlight (2000), it is 1968, and the main character is travelling to Switzerland to work in an orphanage. With episodes from her grammar school years, the reader follows her navigating the conflict between a leftist upbringing, Christianity, and her awakening sexuality.

The Red Book of Farewells (2003) starts in the politically turbulent 1970s. The main character begins her studies in the Theatre Academy, falls in love with a woman, and enters an adult life where there are to be farewells every now and then.

The strong themes of the trilogy – the relationship between an individual and the society, sexuality and being queer, and finding your voice – are told in a fragmentary, lyrical style, descriptive of Saisio. As the background, there is Helsinki, changing as the decades go by.

Each of the three novels was nominated for Finland’s biggest literary award, the Finlandia Prize, The Red Book of Farewells finally gaining it. The trilogy has sold over 80,000 copies in Finland.

You must open doors, and then you must close them.
You must make sure to close the doors you’ve left behind. You must make sure to breathe.
(The Red Book of Farewells, translated by Mia Spangenberg)

Books in the series:
The Red Book of Farewells (Helsinki trilogy #3, 2003)
The Backlight (Helsinki trilogy #2, 2000)
The Lowest Common Multiple (Helsinki trilogy #1, 1998)

Also available:
Passion (2021)
Prevarications (2019)
A Man and His Affairs (2016)

About the author:
Pirkko Saisio