Friday, 20 November 2009

Maskarna på Carmine Street by Håkan Nesser

A few months ago, I went to see Håkan Nesser speak about his writing at the Swedish Church in London. He's been my favourite Swedish modern crime writer for a few years and I couldn't wait to meet him and hear him speak. I wrote about it on my other blog.

As you may imagine, I was thrilled at the prospect of reading his newest book, The Worms on Carmine Street. This is a loose translation, but it gives you the idea of the title, which, put mildly, is eccentric. Just like the man himself.

The book is set in New York, where the author lived for a number of months. It's a story of the city where more human experiences and personal histories are crammed into a small area than anywhere else in the world. It is also a story of the search for a child who's gone missing. And of guilt and of loneliness.

The story is similar to Nesser's collection of short stories, From Doctor Klimke's Perspective, where Nesser examines the possibility of absurd co-incidences, magical happenings and existentialism. In those stories several supernatural phenomena are never explained, where as here, Nesser tries almost too hard to ground the plot in reality.

At first Worms on Carmine Street moves relatively slowly back and forth between the history of the relationship between the first person narrator, author Erik Steinbeck, and his painter wife, Winnie. It lingers between their first meeting (this itself having an intriguing and almost supernatural co-incidence), and their present self-imposed exile in West Village on Manhattan. It then races through their married life to the tragic event surrounding the disappearance of their child, Sarah.

Half-way through the book the narrator at last remains in the present, which to the reader is far more seductive in it's description of well-known places in New York, actual events and real people. Though I guessed the crisis in the middle of the book, I still found it a satisfying and plausible twist to the plot, one that also allowed the narrator to spring into action. Action which at last started to remind me of Nesser's other, highly enjoyable crime stories, featuring Detective Inspector Barbarotti, or (in his earlier books) Inspector Van Veeteren.

There's no date (as far as I know) when Maskarna på Carmine Street will be published in English, but I assume it will be sooner rather than later, set as it is in New York and not in some abstract Northern European country. Even so, I do not wish to spoil the enjoyment of this book to you by revealing the ending. Sufficient to say, as much as the first half of the story is uneventful, the second half is fast paced.

The book, however, is not a classic Nesser. Whether it's the influence of New York, or the subject matter, but the book is decidedly more sombre than any of his other works. And that's going some. We're talking about Nordic crime literature after all. Angst doesn't come close to describing the level of existential loneliness found in this book.

Still, I'd recommend this latest Nesser to anyone who's enjoyed his earlier works, or even anyone who's new to Nordic crime writing. It has a magical, lingering quality that many of the British or American crime stories lack. Or perhaps I just enjoy reading about that, oh so, Nordic of mental states: serious, slow, self-fulfilling introspection.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Bitter Bitch by Maria Sveland

This novel by the Swedish author, Maria Sveland, is to be published in English on 25 February 2010, but came out in Sweden in its original title, Bitterfittan, already in 2007.

According to The Bookseller, Constable and Robinson bought the rights to the book during the London Bookfair in April with 'a substantial five-figure sum'. It has sold over 200,000 copies in Sweden. The German translation sold 20,000 copies in its first three weeks after publication earlier this year.

The book tells a story of a frustrated journalist mother of one, Sara, who's overwhelmed by motherhood and finds herself growing more and more bitter.

The Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, called the book, 'A political novel about cohabitation and equality' and its English-language publishers, 'A wonderfully honest and open account of a woman querying the values of motherhood and family life.'

While reading it, I had to pinch and remind myself that this was 2009 and that women burning their bras had occurred a decade or three earlier. And that Sweden had been at the forefront of the feminist movement.

But I guess that's her point. Life between the sexes by now should be equal. Men should equally have to, not just take responsibility, but also feel the weight of responsibility we women do for our children. But, all the same, in a country where 20% of men actually take paternity leave and where women have the most equal opportunities at the workplace in the world, what you might say has she to complain about? That life is not perfect? Wow, that's a really revolutionary observation.

I felt sorry for the men in the book. I felt Sveland didn't go any deeper into any of the relationships she internally investigates, including her parents' unhappy marriage or the connection between couples she observes in Teneriffe, where she's gone alone for a week long holiday 'to sleep'. Everything that is wrong in the world is men's fault. And women are perfect in every way.

And she misses her young son, a fact she resents. In fact she resents motherhood.

But the biggest problem with Bitterfittan is a total lack of a plot. What we get instead is a memoir of how this thirty-year-old had got to where she is, a Bitter Bitch. There's always a problem with a narrator going back in her life, especially if we know her present situation, as this takes away any form of suspense. Instead the reader is asked to sit in on her internal journey from an angry young mother to...well I won't spoil the little in a way of a twist that the book provides.

The title of the of the novel in Swedish is much more offensive than its English translation. Sufficient to say that instead of 'Bitch', it includes a word beginning with 'C'. Could it be that this has something to do with the novel's popularity in Sweden and Germany?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

No excuses

I know I've been neglecting this blog.

The sad fact is, I've not read any Finnish or Scandinavian literature in ages. Even the Wallander TV series recently broadcast on BBC Four passed me by due to a digital box failure...

Plus the annual trip to the Åland Islands just didn't happen this year due to many reasons, one being daughter's op, another being work.

Boring, boring I hear you shout. Mere feeble excuses, I know.

But, I am willing to make amends. I have just started reading the highly acclaimed book by Sofi Oksanen, Purge, which is soon to be translated into English. She won the 2008 Finlandia Prize , the most prestigious literary award in Finland. Many of my friends have recommended this book to me, and have nagged me to read it. So, here goes. I'll be back to report to you my findings in a week or so.

Thank you for your patience.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

'To Steal Her Love' by Matti Joensuu

The storyline of this book is chilling. A stranger visits women in their Helsinki flats at night. Nothing happens to them, or has yet, but will it? Tweety, a skillful picker of locks roams the streets and falls in love with one of his night-time women. As we follow him, we realise he's a love-starved youngster, under the spell of his criminally infamous family.

Detective Sergeant Timo Harjunpää has his own worries, but begins to take note of the women reporting strange goings on at night. While he struggles with his own complicated love and family life, he's increasingly worried about the night-time goings on in Helsinki.

I could not put this book down. It weaves a delightful pattern between the policeman's personal dilemmas and those of the small-time criminal. It also paints a beautiful picture of the city of my student life: the night-time streets of Helsinki, it seems, have not changed that much in twenty years.

I'm off to buy 'Priest of Evil', Joensuu's previous novel, also available from that well-known Internet retailer.

Monday, 11 May 2009

'Seinää Vasten' (Against the Wall) by Jarkko Sipilä

This crime thriller won the 2009 Johtolanka-prize in Finland. It's the 8th in a series of novels following a police department in Helsinki, headed by Chief Inspector Takamäki. The main character is an under cover policeman, Suhonen, who infiltrates a gang of criminals, run from his prison cell by a violent offender, Larsson.

I have not read the previous seven books in the series and found the characters unconvincing and one-dimensional. The author himself admits that he does not wish to burden the reader with the details of the policemen’s private lives. ‘Personal details would make the characters deeper, but if they don’t move the plot forward…’

But the plot didn't keep me awake either. The novel starts with a prologue, a sure sign that the reader needs some extra help. The story is told from the point of view of all the policemen as well as all the villains. This slows down the action and confuses the reader. As a Finn who left her native country some 25 years ago, I also found the many characters’ names unnecessarily long and similar, adding to my confusion. I also spotted an interesting detail: the three truly nasty characters all had Swedish names. Oh to be a Finnish Man!

‘Against the Wall’ has been acclaimed for its authenticity. I have no doubt about this. The dialogue with modern street language is impressive (and I can only assume realistic) and I enjoyed the new phrases. Both the policemen and the criminals use complicated technical equipment and their function is explained well by the writer without affecting the fluency of the story. The rest of the narrative is sometimes clumsy. Whether it’s explaining the routines of the Helsinki serious crimes police department, or the habits of the prisoners, I got the impression that the production of the book was hurried.

In Finland the theme of the book, the limits of what an undercover policeman can do, has been topical after revelations of some police officers’ dealings with drug traffickers. Sipilä claims his plot was charted well before these revelations, but it made me wonder whether ‘Against the Wall’ was rushed into to the printers to mirror the more serious goings-on in the real Finnish police force?

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Strindberg and Love by Eivor Martinus

I have been obsessed with Strindberg since I had to study his plays at school in Finland. Having lived in Sweden as a child my language skills were beyond those required by the curriculum and so my Swedish teacher decided that I should not only achieve a good mark in my Swedish Baccalaureate, but should learn something new. She set about encouraging me to write an essay on Strindberg. For a teenage girl the Swedish playwright was not an easy subject. The prolific, socially critical and revolutionary writer, who died in 1912, was generally known as a misogynist. Eivor Martinus’ motivation for Strindberg and Love is to try to refute this allegation. Strindberg’s three marriages and a last engagement to a fourth, young actress Fanny Falkner, could make this a difficult task.

Martinus describes the writer from the point of view of his women. She tries and succeeds in describing a passionate author living in a time with dramatic social change with fond detachment. Many of the sources the author has available to her are by Strindberg himself, which makes her task even more difficult. He had a tendency towards long periods of depression, often triggered by the end of an affair, or marriage. To combat these bouts of what I’m sure in today’s world would be diagnosed as bipolar episodes, he often retreated to writing. The resulting novels or plays were putrid, hostile, egoistic accounts of the previous relationships. But as Martinus points out, he made notes in his diary to remember not to let anyone see the writing; especially a new object of his love. Economic realities, however, often intervened and time and time again Strindberg had to sell the poisonous manuscripts to his publisher to pay for food and rent.

Martinus account of Strindberg is vivid, the writing is excellent, and the reader finds it easy to follow the loves and lives of the great writer without feeling she is reading a boring biography. I was sad to come to the end of the book and felt that the women in his life and Strindberg were deeply loved by each other as well as by the author.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

'Mind's Eye' by Håkan Nesser

I can't claim I'm new to Nesser's murder mystery world. I've been reading his unusual novels in Swedish for a couple of years and am an enthusiastic fan. At last he's being translated into English, at a rate of one book per year.

Mind's Eye is a well constructed story of a serial killer, who almost by accident becomes one. But the first scene is seemingly a domestic affair. After a drunken night, Eva Mitter's body is found in a pool of blood in the bathroom of a flat she shared with her new husband. He remembers only fragments of their night together but claims he could not have killed her.

The Police Chief Inspector, Van Veeteren, has his own worldly concerns. He's an old autocrat feared by his superiors as much as by his underlings, due to his undisputed talent for solving murders. But this case baffles him and makes him question his future in the force. Following the modern Swedish literary detective story tradition, Mind's Eye is more about the detective that it is about the murderer or even the victims. As in all Nesser's books the setting is an invented Northern European country, with bad weather and sombre buildings. Nesser's clipped, economical writing style suits the genre and the story. All the while we wonder what hides in the background, what we're not being told. He creates the story in our minds as much as on the page.

But the surprising twist in the end is less satisfying just because Nesser does not allow the reader any relevant insight into the mysterious Van Veeteren's mind. Even with a few chapters written from the murderer's point of view, the reader is none the wiser as to who he could possibly be, nor how the Chief Inspector came to suspect him. It's the norm to be led down the wrong track, but in order to satisfy the fans of the genre, the writer needs to give at least a hint of the solution away. If the great detective can work anything out, the reader will lose interest. What's the fun in reading about a magic trick? It only works if you can watch it.

Perhaps Nesser's later books, with the more approachable detective Barbarotti, would have suited the English speaking market better? Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to reading the English version of the next book in the Van Veeteren series, Woman with Birthmark.

Monday, 27 April 2009

'Ei Kiitos' by Anna-Leena Härkönen

The heroine of 'Ei Kiitos', Heli, is 43 and married to a man with intimacy issues. He lacks sex drive. But Heli has enough to spare, and spends all her time trying to get her man into the sack. Slowly we see that the little time the couple spend in bed (not sleeping) belies deeper, more serious issues in the marriage. He spends his time in front of the pc, while she obsesses about sex. The relationship hits serious rocks when the couple's 13-year daughter leaves the marital home for a month long summer holiday in London. A holiday in Greece to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary only adds pressure.

The style of the book is light, and it is meant to entertain as well as deal seriously with modern relationship issues. This is not a good combination. A third of the book is spent in a painfully open and detailed account of the many advances Heli has to make to get her husband to notice her, let alone to 'give it' to her. 75 percent of this is unnecessary. We get it. She wants sex with him, he doesn't care for it. Is he depressed? Is she unattractive? Is it him, or is it her?

If only the author had not felt the need to shock and titillate her audience with frankly too graphic sex scenes, the reader could have been rewarded with a gem of a book about modern marriage, in an age where divorce is easy and affairs are the norm. The message of the book that men and women both still thrive on old-fashioned, romantic love as well as on wild and passionate sex is lost amongst all the bodily fluids and unusual positions.

The 13-year-old daughter's departure amid arguments about cropped tops, tongue piercings and use of rude words, is a truly moving scene, one which shows that the author could have done something quite beautiful with the story if only she had not in the same breath moved onto a frankly crude lovemaking scene.

'Ei Kiitos', or 'No Thank You' has sold well in Finland, over 65,000 up to the end of 2008. Perhaps I've become too British, but I have to admit to being much more moved (and excited) by McEwen's library love scene in 'Atonement' than I was by the 30 or so in 'Ei Kiitos'.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

New books from Finland

The main aim of this blog is to comment on latest books published in Finnish. There will be crime, romance and so called literary fiction. Any title suggestions are welcome, please let me know.Occasionally I'll comment on translated fiction from Northern Europe. Again if someone has a burning desire to know about a particular book, just post a comment here and I'll try to accommodate you.

A trip to Helsinki to stock up on reading matter is imminent, so I ask for your patience. In the meantime, there's a short review of Mika Nousianen's Vadelmavenepakolainen on February 2009.