Book review: Birdbrain, by Johanna Sinisalo

10 10 2016

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish speculative fiction writer whose first novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (the English translation is titled variously Not Before Sundown and Troll: A Love Story) won the Finlandia prize for literature in 2000. She’s written several other novels and numerous short stories of which, typically, only a fraction has appeared in English. She is also the originator of the term ‘Finnish Weird’ that has now become a genre label applied to the works of writers such as Anne Leinonen, Tiina Raevaara, Pasi Jääskeläinen and herself.

birdbrain

Heidi is a junior employee of a Finnish advertising agency; Jyrki is an itinerant barman who rescues Heidi from the wandering hands of a drunken petroleum company executive. Something clicks between Heidi and Jyrki, and a one-night-stand turns into a relationship of sorts. A year later, the pair are tramping (or, if you prefer, bushwalking) through the rugged trails of the antipodes, on the South Island of New Zealand and then on Tasmania’s south coast. It’s an experience that will test them cruelly: Jyrki is driven, dogmatic, environmentally puritanical, while Heidi is stubborn and determined not to show weakness. He’s an experienced tramper; she’s new to all this. And Tasmania’s South Coast Track has some passages of extraordinary difficulty and danger. It would only take one wrong thing to put them in a life-threatening situation … and that thing might be something external, or might be something they’ve brought with themselves.

Birdbrain (Linnunaivot, 2008, translated by David Hackston) riffs extensively off Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which, since she found it in a hut in NZ, has been Heidi’s principal reading matter on the trip: she’s read it four or five times in the month since. The South Coast Track, with its cliffs, quagmires, and difficult river crossings, stands in for the darkest Africa of Conrad’s novella. In this setting, the mostly-unvoiced tension between Jyrki, always keen to press on further, and Heidi, who would relish the opportunity to take a break to absorb the spectacular scenery, reverberates between them like the taut string of a musical implement. So it’s only natural that, when items of their precious, irreplaceable camping equipment—a water bottle, a tent peg, several slices of pepperoni—start to go missing, they blame each other …

The speculative component of Birdbrain is subtle, but it is there (and no, I won’t disclose it, since the author has taken such pains to conceal it). The book shuttles, in alternating chapters, between the crucible of the South Coast Track and the couple’s backstory, in Lapland, Helsinki, Nelson Lakes and the Grampians, with each chapter split between Heidi’s and Jyrki’s accounts of events. The settings are vividly evoked—it is, to my mind, an exceptionally visual book—and the portrayals of the two protagonists are at times chillingly precise, each reaction utterly plausible.

I’m not enough of an adventurer to know whether Sinisalo’s detailed descriptions of the travails of the various tracks are completely accurate, but they feel authentic: the book is redolent with mud, and sandflies, and leeches, and the gagging smell of pit toilets; with Heidi’s and Jyrki’s precarious dependence on their bared-to-the-bone inventories; with the difficulties of finding dependable water, a good campsite, or the least worst way past an obstacle. The only infelicities I spotted were the assertions that the forests of the Kepler Track, from a startpoint near Te Anau, are ‘subtropical’ (I would have said they were solidly temperate) and that the Grampians, in Victoria, are effectively in the south-western corner of Australia (though I suspect this may represent a flaw in the translation, since the text which makes this inference also refers to the Bibbulmun Track, which is in the south-western corner). These spots of nitpicking aside, the story is exquisitely realised, and so wonderfully brooding, so sharply chiselled, so quietly intense that it’s best taken one small dose at a time. After all, it’s unwise to overreach oneself when traversing challenging terrain …