Imagine if the things around you could talk. The chair you’re sitting on, the mug you might be drinking tea out of at this very moment. What would they want to tell you, and how would they sound? This is the premise of Andrus Kivirähk’s Oskar and the Things, originally published in Estonian in 2015 and now appearing in English translation by Adam Cullen. A book suggested for readers around ten years old and above but that will appeal to introverts of all ages.
Oskar has been dropped off at his grandma’s in the countryside for the summer while his dad’s working in town and his mum’s studying in the States. He’s not terribly enthusiastic about this to start with, but then things take a dramatic turn for the worse – he remembers he’s left his phone behind, charging at home. How will he survive the summer without it? The adults don’t seem to appreciate what a catastrophe this is – his grandma tells him there’s a phone box, and his dad says Oskar will be so busy playing with other children he won’t miss the phone.
This story could have turned into dull moralising about how children these days spend too much time on their phones, but Kivirähk – one of Estonia’s major authors – is far too imaginative for that. It’s clear from the opening scene, in which Oskar is eating meatball soup and making it more exciting by pretending the soup is a swamp full of monsters, that he’s got a vivid imagination. It’s also clear from his ice-cold feeling of horror when he first encounters some neighbourhood boys (‘Any second now they might invite him to come play, and then he’d have to go – there’d be no way out of it’) that he is not an extrovert child.
What happens stems from these two factors. Oskar, exploring his grandmother’s house and doing his best to avoid having to play football with the neighbouring kids, finds a beautifully smooth block of wood and paints it to look like a phone. For fun, he pretends to call the iron – and the iron answers! He gradually works his way around the house, ringing a whole host of objects and becoming drawn into their dramas, ambitions and schemes. The timid dining-room chair that wants to see the world. The scheming rusty nail that eventually sees the error of its ways and turns to acting on its return to the tool shed. So many characters – and so many different voices, all rendered in English with their own distinct ways of speaking. The cream jug speaks with an overly mannered politeness that would slot well into a Jane Austen novel, and there’s an exuberantly wordy dustbin that writes poems about whatever is thrown into it, plus a flirtatious red balloon and many other voices.
Oskar’s grandmother is in the background for much of the story, mainly noted for her slightly alarming cooking and a tendency to encourage him to play outside, and, as the story goes on, mainly as someone for Oskar to avoid as he carries out intrigues on behalf of the things. There’s a twist, though. Without wanting to spoil the ending, Oskar finds one particular thing that puts his grandmother in a whole new light – and brings them closer together.
It is great to see one of Kivirähk’s children’s books made available to English-speaking readers, and Anne Pihkov’s illustrations accompany the story well. Mostly in red, black and white, their slightly distorted proportions and equal treatment of people and things match the subject matter perfectly.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford
Oskar and the Things
by Andrus Kivirähk
Translated by Adam Cullen
Published by The Emma Press (2020)
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Darcy Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. Originally from England, she is now based in Belgium.
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