The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate)

The Howling Miller by Arto PaasilinnaI read this book last night. Started to read at 11.45pm, fell asleep on it a couple of hours later, woke up at about 4.30am and switched the light on and finished it. Couldn’t not. It’s funny, touching, mad, sad, and totally un-put-downable.

Gunnar Huttunen comes to a small village in the north Finnish backwoods soon after the Second World War. He sets to repairing the mill, and to start with seems to settle in. He entertains the villagers and the children by imitating various animals and birds, and apart from the odd period of depression when he howls in the woods all night long, waking the village dogs and setting them to barking, he makes friends. He falls in love with Sanelma, the horticulture advisor, who persuades him to start a small vegetable garden. This idyll doesn’t last, however. Gunnar lapses into manic behaviour on a regular basis, upsetting his neighbours and incurring their wrath. For instance, when his vegetable garden is still bare earth after a few days despite his care and attention, he mulls over the problem then races up to the farm where Sanelma is lodging in the early hours of the morning and demands to speak to her there and then. As a result of a bizarre yet seemingly inevitable sequence of events, the fat farmer’s wife is tumbled down the stairs and claims to be deaf and paralysed thenceforth.

Can’t recommend this highly enough. The copy I read was produced by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in – in conjunction with Canongate – one of the best small publishers I’ve come across – in a limited hardback edition. It was my mother’s copy – I may have to acquire my own.

Pippa Hennessy

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