SECRET PASSAGES IN A HILLSIDE TOWN
A Life In Pictures
Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s latest is a fivestarrer. Is that a spoiler?
Gloriously strange, witty and disturbing
released 7 december 412 pages | Paperback/ebook Author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen Publisher Pushkin Press
Social media can be terrible for dredging up the ghosts of the past, what with its potential to reconnect you with old friends, ex-lovers and estranged relatives.
For Olli Suominen, married family man and successful publisher, it brings lost childhood love Greta back into his life. In the years that they’ve been parted Greta has become a celebrated author, best known for her book A Guide To The Cinematic Life (a faintly irritating tome on how to live your life as if it were a film, that has taken Finland by storm). The two agree to work together on her next work, but it’s not long before they’ve rekindled their romance. Partly that’s out of long-buried desire on both their parts, but mainly it’s because Olli’s wife and son have been abducted and will be executed by their captors if he fails to make Greta completely happy by the end of the year…
How and why this is all happening has something to do with Olli’s childhood in and around Jyväskylä. As an adult he is slow and detached from the world (it’s several days before he even notices that his family have vanished) but as a youngster he and his friends were adventurers. They solved a crime and together discovered the secret passages hidden in the hills around the region. Quite what these tunnels actually are is never fully explained, but they appear to have strange temporal properties, and people who enter them are never quite the same again – if they return at all, that is.
First published in Finland in 2010 (which explains the book’s fixation with the then still vogue-ish Facebook), Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s novel is gloriously strange, witty and disturbing. Beginning as a whimsical romantic comedy, it soon slides dizzyingly into fantastical horror as Olli’s seemingly omnipotent foes begin to tighten their grip on his life. The flashbacks to Olli’s youth, meanwhile, are a surreal and melancholy riff on the Famous Five. As his repressed memories rise back to the surface, Jääskeläinen methodically peels back the layers of a metaphysical mystery, leading to a smart reveal at the halfway point that changes the book entirely, investing it with deeper meaning and not-a-little righteous anger. Greta’s life, it turns out, has been a tremendously difficult one, and her obsession with cinema begins to feel like a coping mechanism as much as a passion. The book is also blessed with a truly disquieting villain, who emerges in the final act as both benefactor and cruel tormentor.
Jääskeläinen’s prose is exquisite throughout. At first the heavy reliance on dream sequences feels like a distraction from the meat of the story, but as the book progresses it becomes clear just how integral these sequences are. This is a novel with a foot in several different worlds, real and imaginary, and – as with the films of David Lynch, one of the author’s cited inspirations – the unconscious is every bit as important as the characters’ waking actions here. A tremendous, haunting book, full of bitter pain and starry-eyed wonder. Will Salmon
The first book Jääskeläinen remembers reading was The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. “It had a huge impact on me.”