Translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

“It’s dangerous to be different where everyone else is alike. Have you noticed?”

Virve Sammalkorpi is a contemporary Finnish writer who has written several novels, although this is the first to appear in English translation. Children of the Cave was first published in 2016, and was published in translation by Peirene in 2019, subsequently languishing unread on my shelves.

Annabel’s NORDIC finds project/challenge provided me with the motivation needed to finally open the book, although I had initially intended to review Tove Ditlevsen’s weird novel of mental illness, The Faces, which I did read, but found I just couldn’t get my thoughts together to review.

Children of the Cave won both the 2017 Savonia Literature Prize and the Kuvastaja Prize for the best Finnish Fantasy Novel.

I would generally claim not to like fantasy, and would believe myself to be telling the truth, but I suppose I am quite open to novels set in an alternative reality: ‘relatable’ fantasy novels, or those set in the past or on an alternate timeline. I’d include the wonderful Women’s Prize-winning Piranesi, by Susannah Clarke, in this category, as well as Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. In fact, thinking about it, it turns out I have a positive (hitherto unacknowledged) penchant for spec-fic.

Anyway, back to the book, which I very much enjoyed. In the Preface the story is described as a tribute to Iax Agolasky, a young Russian translator, explorer and later photographer who, we are told, accompanied a French anthropologist on an expedition deep into the Russian wilderness between 1819 to 1823. The anthropologist, Professor Moltique, we learn followed a branch of research into “ancient peoples”, based around folklore and legends.

The story unfolds through recovered diary entries, sometimes damaged, missing or unclear. A year into the journey signs of life are seen near a cave, and creatures emerge, which resemble humans but have varying animalistic traits, whether it be a pelt, whiskers or merely a parrot-like tongue. It is unclear whether the creatures are human or a previously undiscovered species of animal.

Tensions emerge over the find, relations begin to deteriorate among the expedition party, and it becomes clear that some members of the trip see the childlike creatures as interesting specimens, or – perhaps worse – as little more than prey, even while Agolasky begins to grow close to an older girl, Anna.

Following the course of an increasingly doomed expedition through a first person account is a device that has been used many times before, for example by Beryl Bainbridge in her 1991 novel Birthday Boys, a fictionalized account of Captain Roberts Scott’s journey to Antarctica in 1910-13.

In Sammalkorpi’s book this device is employed so proficiently that I found myself googling to find if there really was once a man called Iax Agolasky who had kept an incomplete expedition diary. An intriguing read that asks some big questions.

Join the Conversation


  1. Ooh, that does sound an interesting one. I work with a few Finns but haven’t read much Finnish literature. A nice entry for Nordic FINDS which reminds me I’ve been v lax at getting through my massive book of Icelandic sagas I was supposed to be doing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Finnish Fantasy?! That sounds interesting. I always feel bad, that I don’t read more Nordic literature, since I am originally from the Nordics. Like you I have a mixed view on Fantasy, but even if I don’t read much, some of my favourite series are Fantasy. And I really enjoyed Piranesi, so maybe I should give this one a try?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: