This handful of contemporary novels from a country with a unique literary history spans everything from dystopias to historical fiction. And while it may be the dead of winter, and a lot of folks are coming in buying guides to Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Maldives, you know where the hotels probably AREN’T overbooked? Helsinki! And their tourism department knows it, too:
The home of Santa, Moomins, and all kinds of strange films and heavy metal music also yields a great deal of fantastic contemporary novels. Here are some of my favorites!
The premise is simple: Vatanen is a journalist who hates his job, his girlfriend, and his life generally, until one day he hits a rabbit in a car and decides to take care of the bunny, leave his life behind, and just wander around the Finnish countryside getting into wacky adventures. This book is simple, and episodic, so it’s great to read while you’re actually traveling, and it’s also just a great book to read when you’re in a rut, because Vatanen’s efforts to really find out what’s important to him make for inspiring reading in these cases. Paasilinna is a Finnish national treasure, and his other novel translated into English, The Howling Miller, is a great one that I keep stocked in the bookstore, too!
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson. The creator of the children’s book series the Moomins also wrote a number of novels for adults, and a collection of short stories.
Jansson was a member of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, so her novels are translated from Swedish technically, but The True Deceiver in particular has a pretty austere Finnish atmosphere. The novel follows Katri, whose brother Mats’s only wish in the world is to own a boat. Katri begins to insinuate herself into the life of a local reclusive children’s book author, and in her scrupulous way, begins to unscrupulously help Mats afford the boat. It’s a taut, tense novel that is full of brilliant observations of human nature.
The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo. Sinisalo is at the forefront of the biggest literary export to the U.S. from Finland right now: “Finnish weird,” a sort of subgenre of uncanny books inspired by both the stark landscape and morbid sense of humor often ascribed to the Finnish.
If I were going to be super honest with you, I’d be writing about Troll: A Love Story, hands down my favorite Sinisalo novel. It’s a magical realist trip that’s all about the animal sides of our nature, and it is super spooky and great and beautiful. But sadly, it’s slowly dwindled out of print. Her latest novel, The Core of the Sun, is a sort of dystopian novel in which love and free will are controlled by the State, but beyond the authoritarian overtones are plenty of humor, like the main character’s all-consuming addiction to illegal, highly spicy chili peppers.
Girl on Heaven’s Pier by Eeva-Liisa Manner. Manner is a celebrated poet from Finland, and her attunement to language is evident throughout this slim and luminous novel.
Pier is newly reprinted novel from Dalkey, though the book was originally published in 1951. Basically it’s about a girl, somewhat of a black sheep who is brought up by her super-religious grandparents in a part of Finland that is transitioning into the U.S.S.R. But what really makes the novel amazing is how true Leena’s character is written, and simple sentences throughout that reveal an incredible philosophical depth.
Compartment No. 6 by Rosa Liksom. This historical novel is set in Russia, on a train moving from Moscow to Mongolia.
The tale is narrated by a Finnish woman whose solitary train journey is interrupted by a vaguely menacing Russian seatmate. If you’ve detected that some of these novels have a lot of tension and a lot of inner dialogue among characters, you’re right. Compartment is taut and thoughtful and as swiftly moving as its location.
For the traveller…
The Finnish Dictionary and Phrasebook, by Ville Kataja is the best phrasebook ever! Finnish is a hard language grammatically, sure, but once you figure out that all the letters only have one single pronunciation, simply reading the phrases out of this clear, concise, and perfectly-sized phrasebook is a cinch! And as far as guides go, there are plenty of good ones, but the Lonely Planet one is by far my favorite. With excellent suggested itineraries, thorough info from Rovaniemi to Helsinki, it’s also the most recently published one, too.
Maybe there’s something about the frozen North that precludes authors to overthinking and the worry that warmth will never come. Whatever it is these books are all quick-moving reads, with bracing humor and depth, so stop by and pick one up yourself! Even if you don’t get to it until next summer, when you’ll want an escape from the humid weather…