Monday 26 January 2015

Book Review | The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

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.


Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen proposes that places, like people, have particular interests. Some specialise in film; some in food. Others areas boast about an abundance of athletes, or artists, or authors. The small town of Rabbit Back "was known to have no less than six writers' associations, and that was without counting the most noteworthy writers' association, the Rabbit Back Literature Society, which accepted members only at Laura White's invitation."

Laura White is an almost mythical figure in the Finland of this baffling but beautiful English-language debut, which is fitting considering the contents of the Creatureville series:
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 books, but in Rabbit Back in particular you ran into them everywhere you looked. They were presented as prizes 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 mythological figurines.
To be taken under Laura White's wing is no little thing, then, and though she hasn't asked anyone to join the Society in some time—in forty-odd years, in fact—speculation about a potential tenth member remains a sensational subject, so when an invitation is unexpectedly extended to substitute language and literature teacher Ella Amanda Milana, Rabbit Back pretty much erupts.

Ella herself jacks in her job to focus on her fiction, but at the ball where she and her sponsor are meant to meet, the Lynchian mystery this book is about begins:
There was a party, then there was a snowstorm in the house and Laura White disappeared right in front of everyone's eyes, and the tenth member isn't going to be trained after all. That's it in a nutshell.
Yet Ella isn't content to let sleeping creatures lie. As the months wear on without the slightest sign of Laura White—without anything "to indicate that anyone had orchestrated a kidnapping of the famed children's author" or, God forbid, a body being found in the forest—Ella sets about investigating the Society from the inside by playing something named The Game: a surprisingly violent source of story which allows Ella to challenge her fellow members—famous authors all—to answer any question, however personal.

It's probably wrong of me to call the resulting sections of The Rabbit Back Literature Society stories. Spilling, after all, "is not the same as telling stories. The spiller has to stop using words to build stories, to forget everything that makes a good story, above all to forget trying to entertain the listener." Evidently not a lesson Jääskeläinen has himself learned, as the several subsequent spills in service of Ella's quest to uproot the truth about this group entertain immensely at the same time as incrementally advancing the overall narrative.

The biggest question posed by The Rabbit Back Literature Society persists till the tail end of the text, but its author asks any number of others in the interim. How are the books in Laura White's library being corrupted, as if by "an entire conspiracy of rogue printers," and to what end? "Was the history of Laura White and the Rabbit Back Literature Society hiding a child's murder?" Meanwhile, might there have been a tenth member before Ella? Might it, in fact, have been her late father, "the Rabbit Back Rocket"?

These short-term investments are paid off piecemeal, ensuring that readers remain smitten until Jääskeläinen is ready to reveal the solution—such as it is—to the story's central dilemma. That said, there remain a few pacing problems: a handful of chapters that add little to the larger narrative, except insofar as they develop the enchanting tone and texture of this strange tale, and an epilogue that goes on (and on) for longer than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's.

Ella's recent bereavement also serves to engender our empathy, which is as well given how distant the other characters are: excepting said, everyone's an enigma in The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it can be hard to care about bodied concepts—no matter how obscene or appealing these bodies may be.

Like the secret history of the Society itself, "there are breaks in the film in several places, part of it's dim, some of the story is jumbled, a lot of it is faded almost completely away," but this is by design. The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a voyeuristic literary mystery with bits of Blue Velvet and shades of The Shadow of the Wind, and it would not be a better book if it were sweeter or more straightforward. It is what it is: a surreal and surprising story about surreal and surprising stories.


The Rabbit Back Literature Society
by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

US Publication: September 2014, Pushkin Press
US Publication: January 2015, Thomas Dunne

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  1. "a surreal and surprising story about surreal and surprising stories"

    Very well said. I wasn't at all sure what to think of this at first, but it grabbed me and didn't let go. Strange and surreal, absolutely, but also strangely compelling.

  2. I'm reading this one right now, and I am really enjoying it. There are so many different levels to the text that I am sure I would have to re-read it several times to get the "full experience" of the novel.