Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities

rabbit-back-literature-societyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers

This book was one of the staff recommendations at Mr B’s Reading Emporium and I was attracted to the title and the sinister tone of the blurb. I waited until it was suitably wintry outside (it is set in Finland, after all) and then settled in for something magical.

Ella Milana has recently moved back to her home town of Rabbit Back to teach literature and help her mother cope with Ella’s father’s decline into dementia. Rabbit Back is renowned throughout Finland, indeed the world, for being the home of acclaimed children’s author Laura White, who is not only a beloved bestseller herself, but also declared that she could take ten children from her home town and turn them into successful writers as well. To this end she formed the Rabbit Back Literature Society, to which she invited nine children who have grown up to become great writers. As Ella is both an adult and not a regular writer (she dabbles), she is rather taken aback to be chosen as the society’s tenth member.

“The essays blared through her consciousness…Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities, and the floodgates of language standards creaked as dubious sentence structures and hyphenation errors dribbled through their cracks. Every imperfect essay left a dent in Ella’s mind.”

This passport to greatness appears to have been curtailed as soon as it began when at a dinner party thrown at Laura White’s house, a key person disappears in a cloud of snow. But Ella is still a member of this writers’ society and she is determined to dig up all its secrets, big and small, real and imagined. Why are words changing in library books? Why is society member sci-fi writer Arne C Ahlqvist (real name Aura Jokinen) creeping around Ella’s house at night? And was there a previous tenth member of the society who has been written out of its history?

I love that when the first few strange things happen, including Ella’s invite to the society, she is too busy with her normal life to pay it all much heed. She has a job, difficult parents, her own preoccupations. This really highlighted for me how often in books characters jump to something new in their life with no regard for what they would otherwise have been doing.

“He just wanted to look at the garden, to watch it grow – that’s how he explained it to his wife, Marjatta, who had begun to think of herself as a widow and sometimes suffered from a terrible feeling of guilt because of it. Old age doesn’t always wait till you’re old, was her way of answering him. Every day seemed to break off another little piece of Paavo Emil Milana’s personality, and piece by piece he was less and less the Paavo Emil Milana she had married.”

The story hints at and creeps into several genres. The overall structure is that of the detective novel, but it’s not clear whether any crime has been committed. Similarly, there are strange hints of the supernatural in various forms – ghosts, faerie creatures, magic – but nothing is definite, nothing is explained. Could it all just be over-fired imaginations?

The imagination is certainly central to everything else in this novel. White has trained her writers to tap into their and each other’s deepest, most buried thoughts to fuel their writing. The whole town seems to believe in magical creatures, in dark shapes in the shadows become manifest. Even the dogs are behaving strangely. But there is also the beautiful possibility of imagination, the joy that books (and other writing – one of the society members writes for TV and another for film) bring.

“ ‘It was a lovely collapse,’ Saaristo said. ‘Like something out of an old melodrama. All that was missing were the smelling salts. It’s no wonder you fainted in this crowd. Free coffee and cake will get the masses out better than resurrection day.’ She looked around, smiled broadly, and said, ‘But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half of a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul.’ ”

As Ella learns the rituals of the secretive society and unearths its and the town’s secrets, there is always the potential for something awful to come to light, but what is hidden is more often sad in an everyday way, or at least everyday for the world – loneliness, infertility, the death of parents, the love affair that ended.

And yet somehow it isn’t a sad book, this tinge of sorrow underlines but doesn’t overwhelm the magical otherness, the sense of fun and adventure, the intrigue of mystery. There’s a black humour, a nod to the idea of the idyllic-seeming town harbouring dark secrets, but it’s so much stranger than that.

Lumikko ja yhdeksän muuta first published 2006 by Atena Kustannus.

This translation published 2013 by Pushkin Press.

Source: Mr B’s Reading Emporium.

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