Book review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

29 10 2016

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is a Finnish teacher and speculative fiction writer who has, to date, released three novels and one short story collection. His work has won the Atorox and Tähtivaeltaja awards, as well as several Finnish short story competitions.

rabbitbackliteraturesoc

The Rabbit Back Literature Society (Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta, 2006, translated by Lola M Rogers) is Jääskeläinen’s first novel, and thus far the only one available in English translation. (His second novel, Secret Passages in a Hillside TownHarjukaupungin salakäytävät, is scheduled for an English-language release in a year’s time.) Jääskeläinen’s work is frequently described as ‘Finnish Weird’, which seems appropriate enough: it’s certainly Finnish, and it’s definitely weird. It doesn’t, though, exhibit much overt commonality with what I’ve read thus far by Leena Krohn or Johanna Sinisalo, other writers whose work is often categorised as Finnish Weird.

Ella Amanda Milana is a literature teacher in the (fictional) Finnish town of Rabbit Back, a town made famous as the home of the reclusive Laura White, Finland’s most famous children’s author (I’ll tactfully avoid open speculation as to whom White may be modelled on, but Jääskeläinen has been careful, in any event, to muddy the tracks). As well as her own series of Creatureville books mixing mythological species with jovial themes and dark undertones, White is also noted as the founder of a local writers’ club (the Literature Society of the title), the membership of which is restricted to her ten chosen protégés. Or, rather, her nine chosen protégés, because in three decades, White still has not selected a tenth member for the prestigious society. Until, that is, she comes across a short story written by Ella Milana …

But Ella has other things preying on her mind. For example, there’s the strangely-mutable text of the library book she’s just finished reading, there’s the strange doings of her gardening-obsessed, poetry-infused father, there’s the strange preponderance of not-quite-tame dogs which hang around everywhere in Rabbit Back. Above all, there’s the bizarre, aloof behaviour of the Society’s members themselves. Curiosity gets the better of Ella, and she accepts White’s invitation to join the Society. But if she thought the Society’s members were odd when viewed from a distance …

RBLS‘s focus, insofar as it can be said to have one, would seem to be on the clannish stand-offishness of writers, and on the deconstruction of literature’s reputation. Several of the Society’s longstanding members—the gourmandising,  pastry-obsessed serious novelist Martti Winter, the duplicitous librarian / children’s writer Ingrid Katz, the incurably-jaded TV scriptwriter Toivo Holm—are shown in unflattering detail, much of which is revealed through the codified interrogation of The Game, a kind of ritualised, weaponised Truth Or Dare played between Society members. There’s a decidedly sinister edge to many of the developments in the story, and one’s never quite sure whether the book is about to turn irredeemably dark, or simply grow progressively stranger.

Thematically, RBLS has some common ground with the ‘Tuesday Next’ novels of Jasper Fforde—the intrepid, bookish young female protagonist confronted by mysterious literary revisionism in a book-obsessed realm—but the style and tone of Jääskeläinen’s book is very different than Fforde’s works, with much less emphasis on textual wordplay and playful literary name-dropping and more on, well, straightforward leftfieldedness. It’s a difficult book to summarise without giving away important plot points, which I’d rather avoid in fairness to the prospective reader. It’s written well, though the prose never achieved, for me, full immersion, and it’s peppered with intriguing extrapolations, the relevance of which sometimes becomes clearer, sometimes not. I’m not sure how much of this is deliberate, how much is culturally-specific allusion to which I’m more-or-less blind, how much, perhaps, is first-novel syndrome. It’s definitely an interesting book, though it often seems deliberately distancing as well.

Ultimately, I can say that the book left me with a sense of lingering puzzlement, a sense of elements not completely worked through to a clear conclusion, while nonetheless offering, somehow, the shape of such a conclusion. (Much like this review.)

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