Thursday, 25 March 2010

The reading list and Outi Pakkanen

Well Helsinki, although cold, was inspiring. Between ballet, birthday suppers and practical arrangements moving Daughter into her new apartment, I penned a skeletal draft for my next novel.

But I also managed to spend an hour or two browsing at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa on North Esplanade. I concentrated on modern translations and here's what I found.

'When I Forgot' by Elina Hirvonen
'A Frayed, tender account of love...a wrenching read.' The Guardian

'The American Girl' by Monika Fagerholm
Murder mystery, fugue, 1970's culture bath, mythic experiment, chronicle of the feminine mystique... Jenny McPhee, author of Man of No Moon.

Priest of Evil' by Matti Joensuu
There's nothing more thrilling than a mysterious murderer who is never seen, even by cameras.

I'll be reporting back on these books within the next few weeks.

While I was in Finland I consumed (yes, that's the right term for these disposable soft-crime novels) two books by Outi Pakkanen, Yöpuisto and Korttelin Kuningatar. There are several reasons these books appeal to me. They're usually set in the centre of Helsinki, one of the most charming parts, such as Eira or Ullanlinna. They're written in contemporary language, using the slang of the Capital. And they're easy to read. When I read in Finnish these days I have to have an easy read, otherwise it just takes too long.

Usually I - rather snobbishly - abhor anything that could be classified as 'an easy read', but I also admire those writers who can year after year turn out books read by millions. Perhaps not millions in Outio Pakkanene's case - her books are not widely translated into English and with a population of only 5 million in Finland this would be rather a struggle for any writer.

Finally, with Outi Pakkanen I know what I'm getting. Again, if I heard some-one say this at a book club meeting or similar, I'd gasp in exasperation. I'll hide again behind my need to keep things simple while reading in Finnish, but I suspect there's really a lazy reader lurking inside me somewhere.

Yöpuisto, a crime novel Pakkanen wrote in 2009 didn't disappoint. Though written partly from the point of view of a 12-year-old overweight, unhappy boy, it was the usual, safe Pakkanen fare. But what I enjoyed was not the predictable plot and the somewhat caricatured characters. What I saw was descriptions of contemporary Helsinki, written from the point of view of real 'stadilaiset' (Helsinki-born) people, written in contemporary language. What I got was a real sense of the city I love, the buildings I'd love to live in and the parks I'd love to walk my dogs in.

I do wish her books would be more widely translated into English. I've only found 'Party Killers' on Amazon. I believe the sense of place and time in her narrative is very accurate and highly fascinating. Pakkanen also has a blog where she displays pictures and explains the history of the buildings and streets she writes about. An excellent idea which I think all writers should follow. Unfortunately it's only available in Finnish (the Google translation was so inaccurate it was laughable), but nevertheless with these pictures you can be transported to the Helsinki of Pakkanen's novels.

Korttelin Kuningatar, the second book by Pakkanen I read while in Finland, was a somewhat older novel. Interestingly it's set in the aftermath of MS Estonia ferry tragedy were over eight hundred people from Estonia, Sweden and Finland lost their lives. Just as in her other novels Pakkanen spends much of the book examining tensions between people rather than the crime itself or even the investigation. Death of a character in the ferry accident provides a perfect backdrop for human conflict.

While reading Pakkanen I often wonder why she feels the need to include the token crime in each novel. I know for her it's a proven formula, just as it was for, say, Agatha Christie, but I cannot but wonder. If Pakkanen just stretched herself that little bit more, would she not be a truly great novelist, and not just an entertainer?

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