Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Loppuunkäsitelty by Anna-Leena Härkönen

"Are you here to arrest me?" I wanted to quip. But something about their faces made me shut up. Are you Kirsti Härkönen's sister? Yes. We have some very bad news. Now I know. The next question is useless. I ask it anyway.
"Did something happen?"

"Yes. We have some very bad news."
"She's dead."
My next thoughts are: It can't be true. Of course it's true. 
I talk to myself. I tell myself, you had no way of knowing. That you have to be smart about this. You couldn't have done anything. I decide that I'm not going to start blaming myself or asking what-ifs.

Blaming myself and what-ifs begin within an hour.

How do you praise a book about suicide without coming off as contrived or plain inappropriate? I'm honestly not sure. I've had this draft sitting around for a couple of months now, always waiting for an appropriate time to push it live--but such time never comes.

But now we're here, because Loppuunkäsitelty* is a tiny, important book about grief.

In it, Finnish novelist Anna-Leena Härkönen reveals her and her immediate relatives' reactions to her sister's suicide from the moment the police arrive at the doorstep to a year later, when the siblings try to figure out out an appropriate way to remember the day their sister died.

It's an amazingly touching book, yet never sappy. The reader is bombarded with emotions: the fury at the sister for leaving the rest of them to deal with the aftermath ("If I saw you walking down the street right now I'd kill you," Härkönen writes); the hollow sadness upon realizing that she's not in a dream, and that she doesn't know exactly how to answer the question, "How many sisters or brothers do you have?" without making it awkward while staying honest. Härkönen makes morbid jokes and laughs hysterically.

Then there's the guilt: as soon as Härkönen heard the news she created a folder on her computer. And began to write. Does this mean she's selfish by using a horrendous tragedy to fish for a publishing deal, for money? Or is it the only meaningful outlet she has for all the overwhelming questions that have taken over her life? Not having any definite answers has become her uncomfortable reality.

Härkönen is not out to clear her sister's name or make her into an untouchable saint. The book is about how one person reacts when something this terrifying happens. It gives permission for other people to express a range of emtions, instead of acting in ways that others have decided socially acceptable for a situation they have never encountered.

Especially consoling is the way Härkönen tries to later recall events without looking back at her notes. She swears the police informed her about her sister's death in one way, but she's wrong--the readers have seen her notes from Day 1. Then one day she has a hard time remembering any details correctly. It's how pain marches on: its weight may feel too hard to handle, but there will be a day when it's subsided, at least a little.

(*The title literally means "done with"--when no more opinions or facts can be presented and the case is closed. It's wishful thinking on Härkönen's part, which she admits.)

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