Translated by Lola M. Rogers.
When 'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' landed on my doorstep I had no idea who had sent it, the mystery was only cleared up a week or two later when I realised that Salt and Pushkin Press share a publicist. Initially I thought it looked mildly interesting, based entirely on enjoying the 2 Finnish novellas that Peirene have published (The Brothers and Mr Darwin's Gardener) and thought no more about it, but after a brief email exchange with Tabitha (the publicist) I promised I would actually read it (and soon - she's very persuasive).
I'm glad she gave me a bit of a push because after a slowish start I was utterly absorbed by 'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' which was something of a departure from anything I remember reading over the last few years. I'll start with the things I didn't like so much about this book - which are superficial - the first is the book cover and title. Before I read it both seemed to me to suggest something altogether cosier then the book turned out to be. Now I have read it both make sense but I would still prefer something that captured a little bit more of the weirdness inside. Second is that this translation is full of Americanisms which is fair enough when the translator lives in Seattle but is oddly distracting for me in a book which I want to feel totally European (by which I probably mean British, but I notice the use of 'parking lot' or 'block' in a way that I wouldn't 'car park' or 'street').
The book opens with a description of Ella Milana ("a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries") she is a substitute teacher, a literature graduate, and an aspiring author. Her latest job is in her home town of Rabbit Back, which is also the home town of Laura White, a beloved children's author, and her Rabbit Back literature society; a group of 9 more or less successful authors who Laura White hand picked as children to be groomed for success. Meanwhile Ella Milana's father is showing signs of dementia, he's given up running, which had been a passion, in favour of observing his garden where he keeps getting mysteriously injured. He says it's because the gnomes don't like him seeing them. He dies and Laura White invites Ella Milana to be the 10th member of her society, a party is thrown to celebrate but half way through, and half way down the stairs Laura White disappears in a flurry of snow. Oh, and the contents of books keeps changing...
For Ella Milana it's all a bit much, personally it was where the book really started to get its hooks into me. There are so many questions at this point; what's happening with the books, who and what is Laura White, why has she picked Ella Milana, were the gnomes real, and most crucially - what will happen next?
Without giving to many spoilers Ella Milana learns that she's not the first 10th member of the society, that nobody seems to be very clear about what happened to that first 10th member, and that her disappearance might not be the strangest thing about Laura White. She also learns about The Game, a method that Laura White devised for her students to plunder each other's experience to put in their own work. Ella Milana decides to use the game to get answers, but it also means giving answers. Participators have to spill, they're not allowed to tell a story, instead they have to tell what the listener accepts as the truth, and can only stop when they do accept it as truth - no matter how personal or painful the experience might be. As they're allowed to use force when they deem it necessary physical pain is on the cards too.
What becomes clear is that the truth as recounted this way is still subjective, it's always filtered through the memory and perception of the teller, never quite frees itself from story or myth making. It also emerges that Laura White's methods weren't always particularly wholesome; her pupils may have grown up to be successful but they're also quite badly damaged, the question for Ella Milana is are they damaged enough to have committed a murder. As a mystery novel it's absolutely bloody brilliant with a conclusion that's horrifying for entirely unexpected reasons, but it's not just a thriller. There is also an element of magic realism; fairy tales in the Grimm sense.
The changing books, dogs behaving oddly, those gnomes (also elves, sprites, nymphs, phantoms and nixies), and Laura White herself all hint at another world but in such a way that the reader can dismiss it as some combination of dream, superstition, and imagination or accept it as they see fit. Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen offers a guide to unlocking his intentions here which I haven't followed (yet) because for now I prefer to mull over my own take on his writing, but at some point it would be interesting to read the passages he highlights to see if they clear anything up (I suspect maybe not, but as it's the ambiguity of the book that I particularly liked, that's okay).
Pretty much everything happens through late autumn into winter, it all ends in spring. It's very much a story of long, dark, cold nights where everything is obscured by snow, made unreliable by ice, and the forest is a dangerous place to go. As for the forest, it feels like very old stories have crept out of it to make their mark on this novel - which I find very exciting indeed, so once again a big thank you to Tabitha for persuading me to read it so promptly.