Friday, December 10, 2010

Of the narratives we create

44. Totta by Riikka Pulkkinen ("True")

I often read because I find the story intriguing, or because the book makes me laugh, or because the characters are interesting. Then, once in a while, there are those gems that I end up reading because there are just so many sentences that taste good in my mouth, and I wish to write them all down somewhere. In their simple appearance and unpretentious word choices they still hold secrets about the world.

This is one of those books. I did not wish it to end, because I knew I'd regret that I did not write all those sentences down and they would run out soon.

Pulkkinen's story is simple on the surface: grandmother Elsa, a renowned psychologist, is dying of cancer, and the rest of the family attempts to come to terms with losing her. During a wine-induced dress-up game with her granddaughter Anna a dress belonging to mysterious Eeva is found in the closet. Elsa decides she is too close to death to be harboring any more secrets, and confesses first to Anna, who becomes burdened with information that even her mother does not know. What's more, it is evident that her and Eeva's stories are going to collide, one way or another.

What unfolds is a love story, a thriller, or a psychological journey into how we form images of other people in our heads, and how their stories intertwine with our own so much that we can't even tell our personalities apart anymore. By projecting our own fears and desires onto the lives of people we do not know we become familiar with them, although at the same time we wipe the real people out of the picture and insert ourselves there instead.

Elsa, the focal point of the novel, steps back and lets everyone else use their voice, to commiserate, to grieve, to love and to interpret what others think of them. The reader has access to Elsa's thoughts only through dialog, whereas everyone else's thoughts are visited. But who does the visiting? Toward the end, the narrator begins to slip and the story unravels.

A refreshing unreliable narrator and beautiful language demand reader's attention and a second read as soon as the book covers are closed, just to see all the subtle hints that he or she might have missed. Just as with Pulkkinen's first novel, Raja, I hope that someone buys the English speaking rights to this quickly and gets it out into the wider world.

I'm looking forward to Pulkkinen's third novel to see if her theme that has been now been very prevalent in both of the previous books surfaces again; namely, that of an affair between a female student and an older man of a higher status (in the arts, in both cases).

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