This is an odd, complex little story about a murder mystery, or a famous author, or a secret society, or fairytales in our real world, or about the power of language and story and myth and narrative. Translated from Pas Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s native Finnish, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is unnerving and surprising, and I totally loved how thrilling and absurd it was.
Ella Amanda Milana is a substitute language and literature teacher, back in her small home town of Rabbit Back. She has beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries, among other parts, and is 26 years old. A strange thing happens in an essay she is marking on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: the student insists that Sonya, the hooker with a heat of gold, shoots the criminal Raskolnikov through the heart in the middle of the street. The student’s book, in fact, tells this incorrect story. What a printing error!
Rabbit Back is a very small town, very famed for its very famous, loved and popular author Laura White. Ella’s short story, submitted to the town’s local paper’s literature supplement, is published; and she is invited to be the long-awaited tenth member of the Rabbit Back Literature Society. It is a group open by invitation only by Laura White herself, to develop writers with spark into authors.
And so begins this enigmatic and eerie book. It took me a long time to work out what to make of it: is it local girl done good? Is it mystical, fantastical? Is it murder and intrigue? It is all of these things at once, without ever once having to explain itself. An intelligent, funny, charming novel written in a light tone, full of smarts and guts. It’s unexpected.
We are thrown into this world without apology or background telling the story and then filling in backwards as we progress. Through the way of storytelling – led by Ella, but with strong chapters from others’ viewpoints – the novel grapples with memory, age, narrative and perspective. The same story from decades ago – a mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society – is told through different agendas and memories.
It’s also just plain fun. I love how Ella grapples with language and story, for example when marking her students’ essays:
“The essays blared through her consciousness with their insights, opinions, attitudes, misconstructions, confessions and justifications. Jokes, banalities and metaphors assaulted her sensibilities, and the floodgates of language standards creaked as dubious sentence structures and hyphenation errors dribbled through their cracks.”
There are just smatterings of magic and fairy tale, totally expected garden elves, dead ends and red herrings. The book is peppered with stories also not told: her father’s poetry, the book virus infiltrating the library, the mythological mapper. This makes it real, sharp, and all the more fascinating.
There is so much here, lightly touched, cleverly scattered. It is absurd and delightful, oddly thrilling, satisfying. I really enjoyed the smarts and joy in this book, its simple embrace of the unexplainable, its love of words and language. Jääskeläinen is described as Finland’s best-kept literary secret, and it is really worth getting in on it.