Some stories live on

First published in 1981, Sonia O. Was Here continues to be discovered by new generations of readers. The book remains the highest-selling debut novel in the history of Finnish literature, and it was recently included in a list of 101 all-time Finnish classics. The works were selected by the Finnish Broadcasting Company in 2017, the centenary of Finnish independence.

Sonia O. seeks independence from the stifling conventions and lifelong lies that are being imposed on new generations in the guise of roots or traditions. Cited at its time of publication as the “boldest book ever written by a Finnish woman,” this powerful, candid, insightfully ironic novel discusses themes that are as relevant as ever: our equal right to seek, experiment, make mistakes, love, and create.

The book still raises the question: beneath the surface, how much of all the progress we seem to have made is real?


Even a general message for us: that we should dare to crawl out of our oppressed and fearful burrows to blink in the cold, clear daylight where we really belong; that we should dare to discover there what our true limits are and where our purpose lies.


What am I waiting for?

Not for applause.

A man’s odyssey must be among the most explored themes in literature, and we all know the story: the male ego always seems to remain intact, no matter how earthshaking the hardships.
A myriad of literary works celebrate manly bravery and curiosity—if not glorified immaturity. Sonia O. Was Here presents a woman’s reply.

In the spirit of Bukowski, Miller, and Fellini, Snellman depicts a young woman’s search for independence and freedom, her struggle to define her boundaries, and her encounters with the double standards of our society.

Sonia O. is the daughter of two war refugees who suffer from chronic nostalgia for Karelia, a territory Finland ceded to the Soviet Union in the Second World War. The past is constantly present; however, only fragments of it are revealed—and the rest is not to be talked about. Sonia learns to imagine the missing chapters, trying to adapt herself to secrets that run in the family, memories that have grown too sweet with time, and the feeling of homelessness she has inherited.

In adolescence, she wants to break free from the tedious suspense. Her escape takes us through the streets of Helsinki, to the sticky floors of dance studios, the soft nights of St. Petersburg, the sterile corridors of a mental hospital, the stuffy lecture halls of academia, the hubris and discord of cultural circles, and the fiery ideals of student radicalism.

In Sonia’s vocabulary, escape is synonymous with freedom: when things become troublesome, she steals away through the back door that opens with a betraying creak. Her life is a recurrent cycle of defiance, departure, and the feelings of guilt that follow—until she no longer finds an escape. She must confront the fragments of her past and the dialectics of her personality, and she needs to crack the code of her own life.

The story is set in the early 1980s, in the prime years of punk—and in the first stages of an unprecedented economic boom that tempts former rebels and radicals to indulge in the pleasures of cold hard cash. The world has entered the Reagan era, and Finland is caught uneasily between the adversaries of the Cold War. The country has experienced a curious wave of communist radicalism in its cultural life; this trend is later stamped out by the resurrection of conservative values and an unfaltering belief in market forces.

This distance in time and place highlights the themes of the book, making the reader wonder how much has actually changed.

The question is: Can a book from 1981 still touch readers? Can it offer anything new? Is it still relatable? Yes, yes, and yes. At the age of 27, Anja Snellman wrote a book that nearly four decades later makes me, at the age of 27, nod in agreement.


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