Popular Music from Vittula: A Novel

This coming-of-age story (240 pages) was published in October of 2003 by Seven Stories Press. The book takes you to far-north Sweden. David read Popular Music from Vittula and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.


Popular Music from Vittula

A Novel

Mikael Niemi, Laurie Thompson (translator)

Meet Matti, a young boy growing up in Pajala, a town in Swedish Lapland, where the men are stone-faced, the women are silent, and — if fate smiles — the trout and grayling and salmon run strong.

In this coming-of-age story — liberally sprinkled with magical realism — Matti is our guide to the extraordinary everyday events in his hometown, near the Arctic Circle. We meet beautiful women from Finland and a terrifying witch. There’s an African priest, a Nazi, and long-lost cousins from Missouri. Plus, the Beatles and a music teacher whose hands have sprouted thumbs in the middle of his palms.

As Matti navigates his path to becoming the man he — and his very traditional father — want him to be, we get snapshots of the brutal landscape and culture of Sweden. The seemingly endless rounds of schnapps and ensuing arm-wrestling competitions (and fistfights). The feasts with reindeer stew and crispbread with salmon and sugarbuns and whipped cream with warm cloudberry jam. The sweetness of first romance and rock concerts and saunas and skiing under the stars.

Author Mikael Niemi grew up in Pajala in the 1960s, and his novel reads like a memoir filtered through the tender gaze of childhood memory. It’s crammed with tall tales and reminiscences that ring with truth. The lyrical translation from Laurie Thompson cracks and pops like a fragrant wood fire.

Poignant, funny, sometimes harsh, and always entertaining, this enchanting novel transports you to a place that’s unfamiliar and somehow also feels like home.

The wedding took place in the middle of summer when everybody was on holiday, and the family home was flooded with relations. I was nearly thirteen and was allowed to sit at the table with the grown-ups for the first time. A solid wall of silent men, shoulder to shoulder like huge blocks of stone, and here and there their pretty wives from Finland, like flowers on a cliff face. As was normal in our family, nobody said a word. Everybody was waiting for the food. — Mikael Niemi

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