Henry Holt, 189 pp., $23.00
Hanna Pylväinen's debut novel, "We Sinners," is remarkably funny for a book about a deeply religious family grappling with loss of faith.
Pylväinen tells the story — in alternating chapters from the point of view of the parents and several of the nine children — of the Midwestern Rovaniemi family, members of a Finnish sect of Lutheranism called Laestadianism.
They live in a house too small to fit them all 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, of course, dating outside the church. Their faith is absolutely central to the family, with all its joys and limits: In such a context, how can you leave? But how can you stay?
"You know the best thing about the church is your family, and the worst thing about your family is the church," remarks Matthew, the boyfriend of Tiina, as he is trying to get her to tell her parents she no longer believes.
One character eventually does leave the church. Years later, she stands in the shower and remembers her mother's desolate face as she told her the news. "We sinners, we are just lying to ourselves," she thinks. "We are just alone."
It's impossible not to like these characters, so beautifully drawn, and so very loving to one another — although a few of them do pick up some smug, obnoxious boyfriends.
Perhaps because Pylväinen herself grew up in the sect and left, the chapters on the characters who struggle with leaving the church are especially powerful, like the one devoted to Nels, which begins, simply but portentously, "Nels went to a party."
Another character, Julia, home on a visit, is asked by her sister if she will ever come back.
"Never say never," she answers. But what she thinks is "Never." Period. As Pylväinen 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."
Hanna Pylväinen will be reading at Book Soup on Tuesday. For more information: http://www.booksoup.com/author-events.asp