The Wooden Chair, by Rayne E. Golay. Untreed Reads. 307 pages (estimated). E-book $4.99.
I can’t remember a book dragging me into such a state of despondency. Paradoxically, that is its strength in the early going. As readers witness the psychological pain visited upon poor Leini Bauman, a young Finnish girl growing up during and after WWII and the simultaneous “Continuation War” between Finland and Russia, they have a lot to process. From the beginning, readers hope for her escape from suffering.
The threat of war leads Leini’s family to move from Helsinki to a rural area until things settle down. This relocation is disorienting, though it offers some positive new experiences for the five year old. When she comes back home, she needs to adapt all over again to the city and to what went on during her absence.
Leini’s troubles, however, are far more deeply rooted in her physical handicap, her odd appearance, and her heart-wrenching relationship with her mother, Mira. For reasons we come to understand, Mira cannot show love to her daughter. She regularly belittles, threatens, and otherwise mistreats Leini, who is clearly an abused child.
Mira makes Leini’s ocular deformity the target of her hostility. She presses the frightened girl into an operation with the promise of loving her once her deformity is corrected so that she is beautiful. The surgery backfires. Leini loses sight in her wandering eye altogether. Odd-looking Leini remains the victim of schoolmates’ taunts, though she does make a few friends.
And she does find love in her relationships with her father, her father’s parents, and her mother’s brother, Uncle Karl. However, none of these parental figures are able to protect her from Mira’s cruelty. Nor can they make any headway in helping Mira control her dependence on alcohol and her body image problems. She habitually refuses food, worrying that she is too fat.
Leini’s teen years are a cold war with Mira. Eventually, her grandfather arranges for her to have an operation in Vienna. Though her eyesight cannot be restored, major cosmetic improvement results. With careful makeup, Leini looks much more normal – certainly no longer freakish.
In 1957, a confident Leini graduates from high school. She has already taken her future into her own hands by applying to Geneva University’s psychology program. Her father pleads with her to stay in Helsinki, but Leini makes it clear that life with Mira (she hasn’t called her “mother” for some time) is unbearable. Always, Leini tries to understand why her father stays with Mira. Essentially, he has given up fighting with her, and he cannot break the hideous pattern of their relationship. . . .
To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 9, 2013 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the October 10 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, and the October 17 Charlotte County edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Rayne Golay