The Eye of the Reindeer: Snow, Sanity and the Search for Self…

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eye-of-the-reindeer

We readers know that it is super important to make sure you have the right book for the holiday season.  Something that won’t be over too quickly, that will take you on a journey (even if you have to stay at home) and will plunge you right into a new and unexpected world.  Today’s book does all of those things and more in an epic journey toward freedom of body and self, spanning more than 30 years.  We received The Eye of the Reindeer by Eva Weaver from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Shortly after her thirteenth birthday, Ritva is sent away to Seili, an island in the far north of Finland. A former leper colony, Seili is now home to ‘hopeless cases’ – to women the doctors call mad. But Ritva knows she doesn’t belong there. As biting winter follows biting winter, she longs to be near to her sister, and wonders why her father ever allowed her to be taken to this desolate place.

Hope arrives in the form of Martta, a headstrong girl who becomes Ritva’s only friend. Martta is a Sami, from the north. All through her childhood, Ritva’s mother told her wonderful Sami legends and tales – of Vaja the reindeer, the stolen sealskin, of a sacred drum hidden long ago. When Ritva and Martta decide to make their escape, this is where they will head.

So begins an odyssey over frozen sea and land towards a place where healing and forgiveness can grow. This is a story about friendship, about seeing the world through a different perspective, and the stories and tales that can make up a life.

Wowsers, what an epic!  I had absolutely no idea when I started reading this book that it would span such a long time period and feature an unbelievable journey, both in foot miles and in growth of characters.  Ritva is a young woman in 1913 when she is shipped off to Seili, an asylum set on an island in the freezing north, and home to women that have been deemed (correctly or incorrectly) difficult cases.  The daughter of a pastor, Ritva has long experienced strange dreams and visions, and it is only when she meets Martta, a young Sami woman imprisoned with her, that she discovers that her dreams may be related to legends of the Northern Sami people.  After a daring escape, Ritva and Martta are caught up in a journey toward physical freedom from Seili, and the emotional journey of dealing with family history, sexuality and who they really want to be.

The book is broken into a number of parts that correspond with certain legs of the journeys that the girls – and then later on, women – take.  The story begins with Ritva’s time on Seili and we are given certain glimpses into her past and the reasons why her father may have had her committed in the first place.  This family mystery continues throughout much of the book until it is brought to a shocking, yet satisfying conclusion about two-thirds of the way through.    After this, Ritva tries to carve out a place for herself to belong and untangle the pressures of expectation and desire that have weighed her down.

I haven’t read a book like this in quite a long time, if ever.  The Eye of the Reindeer is totally focused on Ritva as she faces incredible challenges throughout her life.  The pace is quite slow, despite the fact that the story begins in Ritva’s adolescence and ends after her middle age, and yet I found each section totally absorbing while I was reading it.  I think my favourite part of the book was Ritva and Martta’s escape from Seili, their unconventional modes of transport and the suspense of potential recapture set against such a hostile environment.  The setting in Scandinavia and the lands at the top of the world was so well described as to almost be a character in itself and I was fascinated by the details relating to the indigenous people of this region – the Sami – and their way of life.  The author leaves some notes after the story is finished about the Sami and their current predicament for those who wish to find out more.

This book certainly won’t be for everyone, given the depth in which it explores difficult subjects like abuse, abandonment and betrayal, and the slow unfolding of the narrative, and certainly isn’t one that, had I known in advance how hefty the story would feel, I would probably have ever picked up.  The atmosphere is quite tense in some parts and particularly gloomy in others, but for the most part there is an undercurrent of hope and determination that spurred me on to find out how Ritva’s story might end.  Overall though, I am so happy to have read Ritva’s story and was completely absorbed in her life as it unfolded.

If you have a space in your schedule in the next few months which could be filled with a vast, sprawling landscape and a young woman slowly picking her way towards truth over the course of an incredible life, then I would definitely recommend you have a go at The Eye of the Reindeer.

Plus, the author has a rhyming first and surname.

That’s always a bonus.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Rabbit Back Literature Society: A Read-it-if Review…

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imageTime for a Read-it-if and if you are open-minded enough to dive into an adult fiction, magical realism-based, English translation from a Finnish author, then you’ve come to the right place!  I have had my beady eyeballs on The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen for quite a considerable amount of time and when it popped up on Netgalley for Australian reviewers I jumped on it quick smart.  Having read it, I’m a bit bemused at least as much by the fact that it is the first book featuring magical realism that I really got into and enjoyed, as by the perversely amusing (and disturbing) events of the narrative.  Off we go then.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society was founded by famous children’s author Laura White to identify and mentor promising young writers in the Finnish town of Rabbit Back, in the hope that they would one day become Finland’s most prominent authors.  With nine members being selected as children, it comes as a surprise to everyone when Ella Milana – a secondary school literature teacher on a temporary contract – is selected decades later as the Society’s tenth member.  But during the welcome soiree, Laura White mysteriously disappears in front of most of the folk of Rabbit Back, and Ella Milana is left in the dark about her place in the Society – except for the slightly sinister Game that all members are invited to play.  As Ella Milana engages her fellow society members in The Game, old wounds and forgotten secrets are brought to light, and the mystery of Laura White’s dramatic exit becomes the least of anyone’s worries.

rabbit back literature societyRead it if:

* you like writing. Or snacking at all hours. Or dogs. Or snacking at all hours while writing, as the neighbourhoods’ dogs mass outside your front gate.

* you enjoy Finnish humour. (Unsure if you enjoy Finnish humour? Read this book and find out)

* you like the idea of a book plague, wherein books start infecting other books with their stories and jumbling up the original narrative

* you’d love the opportunity to really ask your favourite author some tough and revealing questions and have them give a completely truthful response

I have had a reasonably poor relationship with novels dealing in magical realism, it must be said.  This one however, I truly enjoyed.  I suspect it’s because there is a very nice balance between the magical and the realism here – the magical bit permeates a lot of the story, but it does so politely, so that I didn’t feel jerked around with random weird stuff happening at random unexpected moments for no reason at all.  I also tend to have a pretty ordinary relationship with translations, but this one hit the spot in my opinion.

To be honest, I don’t think this book is going to appeal to everyone.  For a start, it felt like a hefty read to me (although as I was reading it on the Kindle I couldn’t tell how fat the actual printed book is) and one that would best be read over a period of time, rather that devoured quickly.  There’s also a fair few bits in which the reader must suspend their disbelief (there’s the magical realism bit, rearing its magically realistic head).  And ultimately, not all the loose ends are tied up by the book’s conclusion. In fact, hardly any of them are.

But for some reason, the combination of offbeat (and often dark) humour, the unfamiliar experience of reading about Finnish characters, and the multiple twists and turns in the narrative made this a pretty satisfying read for me.  The characters are simultaneously completely believable and downright unlikely and I admit to developing a soft spot for Marti Winter, the once-handsome, now obese author of note, who enjoys elaborate pastries, suffers from various social phobias and is inexplicably plagued by dogs.  I would certainly give this one a go if the blurb interests you.  There was a lot of tidbits in it that I found unaccountably funny and there were also a few bits where I was mildly disgusted but overall this book was original enough in storyline and just odd enough (without becoming too strange) in content to get my tick of approval.

The downside of enjoying this book of course is that now Goodreads seems to be recommending a whole lot of books written in Finnish.  I did mention this was a translation, right? Goodreads, please take note.

Until next time,

Bruce