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Lost Ground opens with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Hitler’s fantasy of racial superiority was definitively trodden underfoot by the victories of black US athlete Jesse Owens.
Tina Björnström and her father, Eric, both Finns, have travelled to Berlin to watch Tina’s unofficial fiancé, Paul, participate in the five thousand metres event. Tom Henderson, a US reporter, is here to cover the Games. These are the novel’s four principal characters, and the story of Lost Ground is told from their multiple points of view – Eric’s experience is seen solely from the outside, while we enter directly into the consciousness of the other three. They take us from Berlin to Helsinki in Finland, via the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact to the attack on Finland by the Soviet Union, the ceding of Karelia to the Soviets (the lost ground of the title) and ultimately through and beyond the Second World War.
These different perspectives provide the breadth of detail necessary to grasp events that are too big for any one person to experience in their entirety. Most of the shifts in point of view are made with smooth assurance, with only the occasional jolt at an abrupt transition. Characters’ past lives are evoked via internal reminiscence so that we can see in sharp outline their lingering effects on the present. These people are real and believable because they hold their flaws and their ideals in uneasy equilibrium, yet they are not simply the sum of their personality traits. Personhood is a complicated phenomenon that Jordan is not afraid to explore. It is this that makes her characters so compelling.
Tom Henderson, the strongest of the four, acts as our guide. Based in Helsinki at a hotel where foreign journalists assemble to await press briefings, type their notes and phone in their stories, Tom moves freely between his job, the warmth of the Björnström household and the Fennia, a café with a dance floor and – as Tom duly notes – something of a microcosm for the life of the nation. Staff at the Fennia leave when they are called up for military service, but somehow they are replaced and the eating and the dancing continue. Even the dance band is depleted, allowing Tom himself to step in and play jazz on the piano. It is always exhilarating when a writer finds an image such as this. Jordan finds many more.
Tom is a man who has forgotten how to be happy. ‘Love, he decided, was too fragile a word for his clumsy tongue. He resolved never to use it again.’ Yet it is he who asks perhaps the most important question in the novel: ‘Is that a sign of some kind? To be able to accept that some ground is lost forever and go on?’
A novel of the scale and ambition of Lost Ground, set amid momentous historical events that continue to shape our world, confronts its author with a series of questions: how far should historical events and personages obtrude into the narrative? To what extent can the writer assume that readers are familiar with the broad outlines of the history she describes? How can she best recreate the emotional response of a society to unprecedented threat? These are complicated questions. Ulla Jordan has clearly thought about them deeply, with a consummate writer’s instinct for what works best.
Lost Ground maintains an admirably assured balance between the personal and the political, and shows how one impinges on the other. The novel is principally a love story: of two men for one woman, and of a nation for its land and democratic institutions. Jordan writes with great economy when required – a few deft strokes are often sufficient to evoke a place, an experience – and with fascinating detail when necessary. One of my favourite passages provides a brilliant tactical overview of the military–political situation by means of a slice of rye bread, a dab of mustard and an olive.
Finnish myth and tradition also play an important part in evoking the national character. Intelligent use is made of recurring motifs in this register, especially folktales that ascribe symbolic significance to the natural world – swans and trees in particular. Whatever advance knowledge we may have brought to our reading, Lost Ground enriches us with an appreciation of the customs, civilized manners and idiosyncrasies of the Finnish national character of the time. I, for one, did not know that Finns drank coffee in such heroic quantities.
It may be churlish to discuss weaknesses in a book that is so well written and that provides so much pleasure, but I will risk it. In my opinion, Lost Ground captures completely the terrible juxtaposition of peace and comfort in Helsinki with the truly atrocious conditions for troops in the combat zone. In war, for civilians and combatants alike, there is a great deal of living and waiting and worrying to be done. However, the novel is shy about immersing us in combat, and I found myself wanting to experience a conflict rather than simply be told about it.
Another difficulty is that the fate of one of the main characters is foreseeable early on. The cold hand of determinism is seldom a comfortable experience for readers. In Lost Ground, its grip militates against the tension and uncertainty of the war itself, although this is partially mitigated by the ending of the novel, which has an unexpectedly dying fall. That ending – a kind of gradual descent – might leave some readers dissatisfied. Yet life rarely provides closure and more often than not requires us to wait, adjust and carry on living.
Perhaps that is the great lesson and principal achievement of Lost Ground, which I thoroughly recommend to readers interested in gifted storytelling and accomplished writing.