Finland turns 100 today. Although it’s the darkest and coldest time of the year, consuming the hottest chilli you can get your hands on might not be the obvious way to celebrate. Until you read this book and understand how horribly wrong it could have all gone. Johanna Sinislalo’s Auringon ydin/The Core of the Sun, translated by Lola Rogers, is about just that. What happens when the Nordic welfare state turns into a force for evil rather than good? The efforts of eugenics enthusiasts in the early twentieth century sadly do influence Finnish policy to this day, but in this book things are much, much worse. Care slips into total control and institutionalised patriarchy. And the story starts as depressingly as you could wish, with a young woman sealing a drug deal in a cemetery… except they’re dealing in chillies:
Vera not only loses her fix, but she ends up in court, and that’s where things start to get particularly strange:
However self-assured and competent Vera/Vanna really is, she learns from a very young age – as a preschooler – to hide it from officialdom, to fit into the hyper-feminine role the state demands. She learns how to do it from her younger sister, whom she tries to protect from an equally young age, but always feeling like she is failing in the process:
To find out what happened to Vera’s little sister, we have to go back before we can go forward, through Vera’s letters, her partner’s memories, and official documents of the eugenicist state. When everything seems impossibly dark and hopeless, the book takes a turn towards the light; it might be possible to live well here after all – or perhaps not.
The Core of the Sun is feminist dystopian fiction at it’s best, in the tradition of The Handmaid’s Tale, exaggerating the horror to show what’s already really wrong. But it’s also distinctly Finnish; the first tragedy is faced in the sauna, the hope for a better future grows among the blueberries and lingonberries in the forest. Along with 47 other powerful translated novels like The Transmigration of Bodies, it is on the longlist for the 2018 Dublin Literary Award. Which means great Finnish literature will reach a lot more people in the year after her centenary. A friend said after Unknown Soldiers that she was extremely grateful to be living in Finland as it is, rather than as it might have been. For me, this book had the same effect.