Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books – The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature Society was written by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen in 2006 and translated from Finnish last year). It is a wonderful and wonderfully bizarre book. The Society, are a select group of nine authors around the town of Rabbit Back, chosen as children by the eminent (and enigmatic) author Laura White, to be her protégés and tutees. Decades later, the members of the Society are adults and published writers. After Ella Milana, a young literature teacher, gets a short story published in a magazine, she somehow finds herself invited into the strange goings-on of the Society and caught up in the strange characters within it.

The writing is very good. It is clear, vivid, and funny, and if it is at times a little detached this narrative detachment works quite effectively. The shifting of tenses is a bit confusing and unnecessary, but this may be a translation issue. It’s possible the shifting between present and past tense might be more fluid and more effective in the original Finnish than now.

Nonetheless, the novel’s true strength is the characters and story – and the premise, I suppose. Or perhaps rather than premise I mean the tone. What I really like about The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the sort of underlying magic realism that never gets explained, and never really even gets questioned. I love that the novels in Laura White’s house and in the Rabbit Back library are rearranging themselves, that a plague of book mould is slowly messing with classic stories. It’s such a simple and yet powerful idea. And I love that we never quite understand Laura White, that the novel is constantly ambiguous without ever being too ambiguous. I suppose I mean I liked the randomness of this book, and the fact that its randomness never feels random, if that makes sense. I also love the idea of the Society’s mysterious Game. In general, the novel is just a fantastic idea. It is delightfully unexpected. 
 Ingrid Katz was probably my favourite character, much as I also loved Ella Milana and Martti Winter. Ella feels real, and I like how The Society begins to change her, until we’re not quite sure if we know her anymore. It’s very clever. I also love the way Jääskeläinen writes about Martti Winter’s sheer love of eating. But Ingrid Katz stood out as the most mysterious, and I liked that I couldn’t quite make her out. It’s very effective that that while she is a brilliant character certainly, I still can’t decide whether or not I like her as a person. You never quite know what her motivations are; Jääskeläinen leaves you in no doubt that she has them, but it’s up to you to try and work her out, to piece her together, to try and match Ingrid Katz the writer with Ingrid Katz the librarian with Ingrid Katz the wife and mother. In general, the characterisation is truly brilliant, and the characters remain cleverly known and unknown to the reader throughout.

One of the few criticisms I do have of the novel is that there are too many members of the Literature Society. There are so many that we don’t get to meet them all. Barely half actually appear the novel. I struggled to remember the names of those in the Society (although, possibly slightly because I’m unfamiliar with a lot of Finnish names), and found myself quite disappointed that not all of them actually appear within the novel. As I’ve said, Ingrid Katz and Martti Winter are brilliant characters. I quite liked Aura Jokinen and Silja Saaristo. However, the brief section with Toivi Holm seemed a little random and unnecessary, and we never really get to properly see Helina Oksala, Elias Kangasniemi, Oona Kariniemi and Anna-Maija Selanto. Their names are mentioned, and I think Oona does once briefly appear, but they’re not really characters. I sort of feel that either Jääskeläinen should have just committed and introduced them all, or else had a smaller Society. Had it been a society of four to six individuals, it would have been a lot easier on the reader, and I wouldn’t have felt disappointed at not getting to see so many members of the Society. However, this is a very minor criticisms really, in the grand scheme of an excellent book.

Beyond the story and characters, some of the questions the novel poses are brilliant. Central to the pondering of this book is The Game, in which members of the Society may ask each other questions and are bound to tell each other the utter and complete truth. It raises a lot of interesting questions about human perception and thought, about what “the truth” might even be. It keeps you thinking long after you’ve put the book down.

Also, as a usual critic of endings, I must say that the ending of Rabbit Back really doesn’t disappoint. It was clever, poignant, perfect, and truly well done – somewhat like the whole novel in fact. This was a really good book and a truly lovely real. If you like something your novels a little on the odd side, I strongly, strongly recommend it.

Greatest strength: The general lovely bizarreness of this book.

Greatest weakness: Probably the underdevelopment of several characters, mainly the more minor members of The Society.

Let’s finish on a quote: I’d start writing if I were you. Do you want to know how to write novels? I’ll tell you the secret: start on page one and keep going, in order, until you come to the last page. Then stop.

(This quote is said by a talking cat in a dream. Just to make it cooler.)

Oh, and one more:

As he gazed into the distance, he could see that the world was full of people who longed for death because they couldn’t bear the weight of their own thoughts. Thinking might be fun at first, but then you got hooked on it. People were even encouraged to do it at school, and in many popular pastimes. In the end, though, it made you miserable.

Next week: One Day, by David Nicholls 

1 comment:

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