THE READER was at first surprised,then shocked,as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street,right before her eyes.Sonya,the hooker with the heart of gold,shot him through the heart.
With this dramatic opening paragraph, enough to lure a Dostoevsky fan like me or for that matter any reader familiar with Crime and Punishment , Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen takes us to the small fictional town of Rabbit Back in Finland, saved from obscurity and normalness by the town’s very own literary genius,Finland’s most renowned children’s author and ‘Creatureville’ creator Laura White in this contemporary literary fantasy called The Rabbit Back Literature Society ;a town where the characters of Creatureville are a part of their identity .
‘The local ceramicists for the most part produced water sprites ,pixies,elves,and gnomes.Laura White had made these creatures popular all over the world through her children’s book,but in Rabbit Back in particular you ran into them everywhere you looked.They were presented in raffles,given as presents,brought to dinner as hostess gifts.There was only one florist in Rabbit Back,but there were seven shops that sold mostly mythical figurines.’
When the protagonist, Ella Amanda Milana,a substitute teacher of Finnish language and literature at the Rabbit Back High, comes across a student essay of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov uses a piano wire instead of an axe as in the original version to kill Alyona Ivanovna,the old pawn broker,and is then murdered by Sonya,she marks down the student for apparently not reading the book.But when she confronts the student,Ella finds that he had indeed drawn the correct conclusion for his essay from a library edition where the contents had been altered. On investigating further she soon learns that more books in the Rabbit Back library have been infected by the ‘book plague’ ,where Josef K. takes Mersault’s place in the prison in Camus’sThe Stranger and Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tears off the Wicked Witch’s head with his teeth among others.
She is soon caught up in the middle of more bizarre happenings when she comes into contact with the members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society after Laura White decides to induct her in the group on reading her story in Rabbit Tracks. In a town which boasted no less than six writers’ association,this Literature society of Laura White protégés was the most coveted one,the possibility of joining which was purely theoretical until then,because its entire membership comprised of its nine lifetime member authors who had joined thirty years ago in the first three years of its establishment in 1968.But Ella’s dream of finally meeting Laura White and being coached by her to achieve literary greatness is squashed when the authoress disappears in a sudden snow flurry that invades her house during Ella Milana’s welcome party.
From that point on the plot takes a turn for the more bizarre,as Ella gets to know her fellow members through ‘the Game’,which is a requirement for all members. The mystery surrounding Laura White and her protégés become thicker as she gets involved in the game and she learns about a long forgotten former tenth member of the group,Oskar Södergran,who died in an accident as a boy. The group had since then been drawing inspirations from the dead boy’s notebook which they had read after it was stolen by Martti Winter, another member,after his death.When Martti and Ella dig up the old notebook from his garden where he had buried it all those years ago,the writings are altered to nothing more than ancient runes .
Was then Oskar’s notebook infected by the same book virus that had plagued the library books?Or did it pass the infection to the other books? Did Oskar Södergran really die in an accident?Or was he killed by his jealous fellow members who all unanimously considered him to be a prodigy? How and why did Laura White disappear from her own house? These are some of the questions that arise as we go further into the book.But the author of this darkly humorous literary mystery does not seem to be in any particular hurry to solve the mystery. Reading this novel is in fact much like peeling an onion,a mystery layered under another mystery.The reader is ultimately left to draw his or her own conclusion from the ambiguous and mysterious epilogue.I reiterate, Jääskeläinen thrives on building the mystery even as the novel ends.
‘She came to realize that under one reality there’s another.And another under that.’
One would want to try solving this giant puzzle of a book leisurely in bed on a winter night.This is not a fast paced mystery novel which can be gobbled up without chewing.I loved the subtle aura of magic and mysticism with many references to Nordic lore in this otherwise contemporary story.It is especially interesting to note how the town’s inhabitants seem to be unaware of the vicious garden gnomes,wandering forests,magical water bodies that seem to surround Rabbit Back. At the same time they are not troubled by Laura White’s mysterious vanishing act.While the members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society are living with the weirdness and abnormality of these occurrences as their kind of ‘normal’,ordinary townsfolk like Ella’s mother is living the dull and ordinary life offered in a small town,whose most eventful day is winning a raffle contest.
‘Reality was a game board for all of humanity to play on,formed from all human interaction.You could in principle make it up out of anything you wished,provided you all agreed upon it.But it was easiest when everyone used square pieces,because they would all fit together and form a seamless whole.So square pieces had become the standard.’
Though Laura White disappears near the beginning of the tale,all roads in this mystery lead to either Laura White or her books. In a town which celebrates anything and everything Laura White,information about her personal life seems to be scarce; even though she mentored nine children to become famous writers,she remains an enigma.Aura Jokinen,another member of the society who writes science fiction under a penname ,describes her best.
‘..one thing I do know that sometimes reality shrivels up and blisters around Laura White,almost as if she isn’t really completely suited to the reality she’s trying to fit into.’
The Rabbit Back Literature Society is also a study of the human nature, the relationships formed in one’s lifetime and its many vices,like jealousy,gluttony,etc. The many quirks of the different members of the literature society, their isolation from the other inhabitants, even their avoidance of one another , provide fodder for speculation. However,I found the oft repeated objectification of Ella Milana’s ‘curved lips’ and ‘pink nipples’ a little weird.
Books about books don’t always make enjoyable reads,but Jääskeläinen has managed to keep it entertaining throughout even while writing about writers,their writings,and about writing in general. The efforts of Lola M.Rogers who translated it from Finnish into English should also be appreciated because many a time good books have been lost in translation.I am happy to have found my first favourite read of the year in this weirdly appealing work of fiction by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and hope to read more of his translated work in future.I wish I could read Laura White’s books.The Creatureville characters,viz.,Mother Snow,Bobo Clickclack,the Old Critter,Dampish,Crusty Bark and most of all Emperor Rat would make wonderful bed time stories.
Synopsis: Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella.Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light. . . .In Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s chilling, darkly funny novel, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, praised as “Twin Peaks meets the Brothers Grimm” (The Telegraph), the uncanny brushes up against the everyday in the most beguiling and unexpected of ways.(via Goodreads)