Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston)
Orenda Books, 17 October 2019
PB, e, 244pp
I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for a copy of Little Siberia and to Anne for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.
This is a strange book. A VERY strange book. It's not quite crime, not quite a philosophical study of a man on the edge, not quite a dissection of a remote rural community.
At the same time it's all three.
When a meteorite strikes an isolated Finnish village in the dark of January, it's as if the extraterrestrial visitor has enchanted the villagers. For a few hectic days, everything is out of kilter.
Stored for safe keeping in the local museum, whispers soon get around that the meteorite may be worth a million euros - the sort of money that can change lives. The sort of money that can get you out of Murmevaara. The improbable figure of the village priest, Joel, volunteers to stand guard - and he ends up defending the lump of rock from increasingly bizarre attempts at theft (the nearest police are an hour away, so there is no-one else).
We see most of the story through Joel's eyes, experiencing his religious doubts and the attentions of the more... strange... members of his congregation. (I am actually the husband of a Church of England priest: I'd say this is pretty true to life). There is also, I think, a degree of PTSD, Joel having been injured while serving with the Army in Afghanistan.
And there's all consuming jealously and hurt at Joel's wife, Krista, who appears to be pregnant - but not by him.
Over the days of the meteorite, Joel sinks himself into solving two problems: who is his wife's lover, and who is trying to steal the meteorite? Increasingly deranged from lack of sleep, from stress and from various attacks and near misses, Joel begins to behave strangely, suspecting his neighbours of involvement in one or the other (or indeed, both) of those mysteries.
I liked this book. I found Joel an interesting and sympathetic character with an engagingly open and unsure approach to his faith. He's resourceful and determined and never considers giving up (on either quest) however hard things may get. That said, some of his decisions and attempts to unearth the truth are rather concerning or even downright weird, bringing a strain of dark comedy into the story, a comedy sustained by the rather lugubrious gallery of villagers we meet in the course of the book. While that is sustained to the end, Tuomainen will play some tricks before the story's over, heightening the jeopardy and adding some really tender moments.
One of the things I especially loved is that while the story has themes of jealousy and crime and a rugged rural setting where guns (and indeed, more deadly weapons) are readily available, Joel, a wronged man, doesn't at any point succumb to the darker forms of masculinity. There is violence here and there are deaths, but all caused, in the end, by the strange procession of would-be meteorite thieves (and often, accidentally). Through it Joel is simply trying to understand what's going on, to keep some integrity and to defend those he loves.
At which he is rather good.
It was a fun read and nicely overturned the assumptions one might bring to a book labelled "noir". And nor did I spot the ending coming, not by a mile!
The translation, by David Hackston, is crisp and lucid, the action - and even Joel's internal ruminations - always clear.
For more about Little Siberia, see the Orenda Books website here.
You can buy the book from your local shop, or online from Hive Books, which supports high street bookshops, from Blackwell's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.