Hanna Pylvainen’s debut novel, “We Sinners,” is remarkably funny for a book about a deeply religious family grappling with loss of faith.
The Midwestern Rovaniemi family, members of a Finnish sect of Lutheranism called Laestadianism, live in a house too small to fit all 11 of them and get around in a vehicle so “mortifying to drive” that it is known as the “character-building van.”
They are supposed to renounce television, popular music and dating outside the church. Their faith is central to the family, with all its joys and limits: In such a context, how can you leave? But how can you stay?
It’s impossible not to like these characters, so beautifully drawn, and so very loving to one another. Perhaps because Pylvainen grew up in the sect and left, the chapters on the characters who struggle with leaving the church are especially powerful. One character, Julia, home on a visit, is asked if she will ever come back.
“Never say never,” she answers. But what she thinks is “Never.” Period.
As Pylvainen notes, “Now that she had seen the world, now that she had been in it – she could not go back. She tried to imagine it for a minute … accepting life where you had babies and had babies … The two futures were so dissimilar she was sure they did not exist on the same continent.”
And yet, “We Sinners” avoids heavy-handed sanctimony, lightening the tone with funny observations: “Julia had long recognized the way people in her family stared at televisions, like third-world refugees.”
How can you not love a book that effortlessly mixes lines like that with descriptions like this one, about a character who is drawn to the church because of his love for one of the Rovaniemi girls: “Every week he was full of great grief, but every week he came back, and every week he was forgiven.”