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Rabbit, write The Rabbit Back Literature Society'

January 20, 2015
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Novel filled with quirks, questions

Writers writing about writers can be a tricky thing. Finding ways to explore the mindset of the writer without descending into naval-gazing isn't easy. But when someone finds a way to tell a story about storytellers that truly resonates, it can be a marvelous thing.

So it is with Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen's 'The Rabbit Back Literature Society' (Thomas Dunne, $25.99), as translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers. The book is an intricately quirky look beneath the surface of a small town and the successes of the literary minds that put it on the map. It is complex and ambiguous and very, very good.

Ella is a substitute schoolteacher in her hometown of Rabbit Back, a small village in Finland. She's living with her parents and struggling to find her path. But soon, a pair of incidents combine to change her life forever. She discovers that the local librarian is hiding a secret it seems that some of the books have taken to altering themselves, leading to heretofore unknown versions of classic stories. She then has a story accepted by a local literary magazine a story that leads to a most unexpected invitation.

See, Rabbit Back is also home to the mysterious Rabbit Back Literature Society. Years ago, enigmatic children's author Laura White recruited a number of local children with the aim of turning them into writers and she succeeded. Each of the nine children grew up to become a published author, though some reached greater heights of popularity than others.

But now, for the first time in years, Laura White has invited someone new to join the Society Ella.

But at the party hosted at White's home - celebrating the Society's newest member, Ella soon finds herself embroiled in a mystery far deeper than anything she could have imagined. When the esteemed authoress descends the stairs to make her entrance, a mini-snowstorm spins itself up right there in the room; after it clears, Laura White is nowhere to be found. She's simplygone.

Things only get more puzzling from there as Ella uses the secretive Society ritual known only as 'the Game' to start discerning more information about the Society's murky past. The deeper she digs, the more secrets she unearths secrets that lead her down unexpected paths populated by mystery and magic. And there are those who would rather that those paths remain unexplored.

The undercurrent of weirdness is decidedly Lynchian I'm far from the first to make internal parallels between the town of Rabbit Back and the town of Twin Peaks. As such, the book doesn't necessarily worry too much about tying up its many threads. For Jaaskelainen, exploring the questions is often enough the reader is often made to determine his or her own truths without the benefit of explicit answers.

(Perhaps the truest of truths in the entire book are the moments in which Ella and her fellow Society members are answering questions within the confines of the Game, each person stripping his or her personal truths of pretense and sharing them.)

The world of Rabbit Back is lovingly rendered in intricate detail by Jaaskelainen; the town is so rich and vivid that it serves almost as a character in its own right. And the subtle shifts within the shadows are folded so seamlessly into the narrative that the reader is left wondering just what is real and what is not. The fact that Ella herself is a gifted storyteller she was invited to join the Society, after all only contributes to the possibility that there might be an element of unreliability to her account. That flexibility of narrative is a hallmark of magical realism and is one of the most compelling facets of the book.

The end result is a novel that fascinates and frustrates both in a good way. This might be the first of Jaaskelainen's works to be translated from the Finnish, but it won't be the last.

Last modified on Wednesday, 04 February 2015 01:03

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