This novel was originally published in Finnish in 2017 and was shortlisted for a literary award. The English translation was published in May 2018. There are three intertwined storylines: The narrator, Markus Douglas, a middle-aged man living in New York, receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter. A young, incredibly talented girl, Ellen, is pursuing a career as a violinist in Finland. And a young man drowns in a horrible accident. The reader soon begins to understand how the storylines fit together, and, in the end, the full picture is revealed. One of the unusual aspects of this story is that many of the characters are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the novel gives the reader a glimpse of a close-knit organization that few outsiders have knowledge about. This is probably the first mainstream novel ever set in the JW headquarters in New York. But this is not a novel about religion–it’s about music, about family secrets, about the thirst for power, and about finally understanding what love is.
Plot: Ellen's Song is a page-turner with superb foreshadowing and a gradually developing plot. Readers will be captivated and find the ending powerful.
Prose: Kalland's novel features beautiful, insightful, smart, and witty prose with lovely phrasing throughout.
Originality: This story of a fractured family takes a fresh turn with plenty of emotional adventures and spiritual angles that are unique and fascinating.
Character Development: This character-driven story masterfully defines individuals on many levels: physical descriptions, personality traits, and flaws. All the characters are well developed.
Blurb: This family's tragic story is cleverly composed with depth, wit, and breadth.
Date Submitted: June 13, 2018
Finnish author Ben Kalland not only writes (in English, Finnish, and Swedish!), he also is a pianist, composes music for films, reads copiously, and rescues baby birds. He lives in Helsinki, Finland. ELLEN’S SONG is his first novel to appear in English though he has also published VILDFALKEN (Wild Falcon) and has been honored for both books.
Ben wins our attention in the opening chapter – a very well sculpted overture for this book and ending in ‘When you tell a story, you can choose your point of view and what you want to include in the story. You can choose in many ways, and by choosing carefully, you can shape the story any way you like. This story is about Ellen. I choose to include moments that now feel important. They are fragments of the whole, small pieces of the puzzle. They are only memories, but they are slices of reality. I will start with a cold January night in Porkkala, in southern Finland. That night, when we were standing on the ice, when all the colors were transformed into monochrome aluminum and brushed steel, and the coldness felt like the whole universe was holding its breath, that night is not the chronological start of this story. But it is the point where everything comes together, everything that happened before and everything that happened after.’
There are so many fine aspects to this novel that sorting them out for discussion is difficult. Ben’s manner of creating the past through the present is an achievement. His courage to incorporate the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a society with all their beliefs shared to those of us ignorant about that sect is justified by the manner in which he utilizes the subject. He obviously knows his music very well (as a pianist and a composer) so that discussions of the main characters approach to the violin feels secure. Secrets can be devastating or they can be treasureable just as music can exalt or provide succor. Ben shares all these emotions in the most satisfying way.
The plot should be outlined for the potential reader - ‘A talented violinist. A horrifying accident. An unknown daughter. Finland, years ago: Markus and his three sisters spend their childhood summers at a cottage by the sea. Younger sister Ellen is heading toward an international career as a violinist. But tragedies strike. One icy night Markus' friend drowns in a horrible accident. One of the sisters is banished from the family, Ellen’s violin is silenced forever, and Markus leaves the country. New York, present day: Markus has made a career as a top-ranked elder in the Watchtower Society. Then one day he receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter. He is compelled to revisit his family’s history—and he realizes that he will have to face the truth about what happened to his best friend and to his talented sister. Ellen’s Song is a captivating story about the love of music, thirst for power, family secrets, and finding the truth.’
This is, simply, a magnificent book. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, San Francisco Review of Books