Schildts & Söderströms, 2015.
Reviewed by Kate Lambert in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
The evil book of the title is a collection of poems entitled From the Sorrowful Gloom of Life said to have been written by one Leander Granlund in the 1920s. Rumour has it that anyone who reads the poems will end up in hell. When Pasi Maars, studying literature at Åbo Akademi, suggests writing his dissertation on Granlund, his lecturer Mickel Backman does all he can to dissuade him, but the re-emergence of the book sets off a chain reaction in which lives, careers and mental equilibrium start to unravel.
Billed as a literary thriller, Onda boken isn’t quite thrilling enough and is more about the existential angst and unrequited obsession of male students and academics than literary crime. All we learn about Leander Granlund is Mickel Backman’s explanation in the first chapter that when his brother became engaged to the girl he was in love with, he went to Lapland for two years, where he wrote the poems. On returning for the wedding, he killed the bride and groom, and eight innocent guests, by poisoning the pea soup at the wedding feast with toadstools, after which he drowned himself in the sea. The other suicides or attempted suicides in the book, and there are a lot of them, have far less instant and obvious a cause.
After the intriguing first chapter, the pace of the book slows. We meet Helena, waiting for her boyfriend, student Calle, returning home from a stand-up gig. His train is delayed because someone has jumped in front of it, not that he has thought to text her and tell her this, and she sits on the cake she has spent all day making for him. When he vanishes in the middle of the night without telling her why and doesn’t return in the morning, he finds she has kicked him out. Calle spends much of the rest of the book wondering why, while his life and his mind fall apart in a desperate unravelling that sees him resorting to stealing books from the university library to sell on the internet after his grant is cut. Mickel Backman’s wife Myrna finds that his libido is fuelled by his obsession with a student with whom he had an affair fifteen years ago, whom he talks about in his sleep, and she departs for a writer’s retreat in Gotland, after revealing that she has been sleeping with Tanner, her publisher. We later learn that Backman’s ‘Lolita’ threw herself under a bus after leaving him and has been in a mental hospital ever since.
At this point the reader might wonder whether the entire book is going to be about men wandering the streets of Turku pining bewilderedly and obsessively for women who have unaccountably left them and pondering the futility of their existence, but the pace picks up again in the final third. The evil book of the title returns to centre stage, linked to many of the characters and the secrets they are trying to hide, and many of the suicides turn out to have been read or sent Granlund’s poems before their suicide attempts. But this is not a horror story of an evil book that magically forces people to kill themselves. Nor do we ever learn what the fateful poems actually say. The renewed interest in the manuscript, however, forces the men to confront their own failings and the wrongs they have committed in the past in a cascade of mid-life crises. The process uncovers buried secrets and something rotten at the heart of the Finland-Swedish academic and literary establishment. Some of the truths revealed are too much for the characters – perpetrators and victims alike – to face.
Onda boken is an unsettling and thought-provoking book. We may have little sympathy for the protagonists’ self-centred approach to relationships, yet it is discomfiting to watch them teeter on the brink of self-destruction, clinging on to those they have designated their saviours as their sanity disintegrates. Onda boken is an uncomfortable read that questions whether this horror is something that is fundamentally Finnish, male or simply human.