When Jussi Valtonen’s book won the Finlandia Prize for the best novel of 2014, my friend recommended it to me. Her husband had loved it, I would find it really interesting. But it looked so weighty, and back then, my Finnish was only good enough to read young adult literature, where the breakneck speed of the plot compensated for my frustration at still having to use a dictionary. So I didn’t read this then.
And now it’s just been published in English translation by Kristian London, by the brilliant OneWorld Publications.
So I got the Finnish original out of the library. And found that the cover of the English edition tells you something the Finnish cover doesn’t; there’s breathtaking pacing and tension in this book too.
So I got sucked in.
It all starts when Alina, a Finn, meets Joe, an American, at an academic conference in Italy. She doesn’t have much confidence in her work, but Joe is confidence personified, and it’s catching…
For full disclosure at this point, I should say that I, then not a Finn, met my partner, still a Finn, at a student conference somewhere in the middle of Europe, too. So there was something familiar about that relentless pull that draws people together over thousands of miles from very different places. Joe meets Alina, and he’s fascinated. She’s a living breathing product of a Nordic welfare paradise. Except Alina doesn’t see her home quite like that, herself…
Yes, there’s plenty of biting criticism about academic cultures on both sides of the Atlantic here, and very well deserved a lot of that criticism is, too. There’s also very sharp analysis of how impossible it is for outsiders to break into the inner circles of a close-knit too-small world… But at this point, it’s also about two people from two different places, whose child is from both of those places, and neither. They don’t know what they’re doing when they get together, the gulf between them widens rather than narrows, and their son is left to live out the consequences.
Which, in fact, are vast, and terrifying. But so is the world in which they are living in. It’s connected like never before, which means that nowhere is safe. But the people in it are moving further and further apart.