Steam Clean by Laura Kenins is a thin book, with somewhat innocent pencil crayon drawings, which packs a mighty punch, exploring profound themes like the reconciliation of national identity and thousands of years of cultural lore with modern ideas of gender, identity, patriarchy, online dating and friendships between women, women-identified and non-binary people. Steering well clear of anything that would resemble preachy, Steam Clean weaves complexity by presenting different perspectives and life experiences.
Kenins accurately captures the spirit of the sauna and the table it lays for conversations that are otherwise too difficult. She pushes the boundaries of naisten sauna vuoro, the women’s sauna turn, by pushing the reader to question how “woman” is defined and how this definition fits into an ancient ritual of women saunaing together.
Often sauna narratives are full of cliché and overemphasize the importance of the sauna. Kenins allows the sauna to do what it is supposed to do: be the host of the action while guiding the opportunities it provides.
Likewise, Kenins’ depiction of the visual beauty of the sauna in the woods and her frames detailing elements of the surrounding nature are what so many sauna goers appreciate. Many people talk of feeling something akin to holiness when in the woods; the sauna in the forest has a way of allowing the bather to take a moment to find meaning in nature. Kenins gets this right too.
The drawings, which at first feel naïve, have a quality to them that is in fact mature and genuine. They evoke a deeper understanding of the storyline and appreciation for the relationship between the characters, the sauna and their environs. It was especially refreshing to see women, women-identified and non-binary people represented in different body shapes and sizes in an illustrated book for adults. Something that, in retrospect, feels all too rare.
This book is a treasure. For its love of saunas and nature. And for its depiction of characters who struggle for representation within cultural and national narratives.