Schildts & Söderströms, 2011.
Reviewed by Anna Holmwood in SBR 2013:S
Review Section: Young Adult Fiction
The year is 2035. Sea levels have risen by ten metres over the last few years, due to global warming. Much of the world’s population has had to move as their homes are now under water. Helsinki, the place where fifteen year old Lilja was born, is now half-submerged, and the Finns have had to move further north to Jyväskylä where their government is keeping them under surveillance and protected from the influx of refugees who have made the half-ruined former capital their new home. The Finns aren’t really allowed back to Helsinki, but Lilja wants to see where she was born. And she can’t help wondering about her aunt Sassa, the marine biologist, who stayed during the evacuation. That is, until one day, Lilja finds a photo of her parents and her aunt, the date printed in the corner. Only two months before she was born. And yet her mother looks slim, her waist cinched in with a belt, and Sassa is clearly very pregnant. So begins Lilja’s adventure of going back to her old home in search of her real mother. The state of the capital shocks her; people are crammed into crumbling buildings – thousands of them, Indians, Chinese. But one Indian family takes her in and protects her as she struggles to find a way back to her old life, a surrogate family far more appealing than the mother Sassa she manages to find.
Dystopian fantasy adventures have been dominating young adult fiction in recent years, from the runaway success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games to Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. These are fast-paced novels, featuring budding first romances with political bite. When read alongside these American and British bestsellers, Annika Luther’s City of the Homeless is striking for the ways in which it refuses to conform to these standard tropes. The pace is considerably slower, meandering at times, and Lilja is a much quieter protagonist. In the afterword, Luther reveals that her interest lies in exploring ‘life after a disaster’, and certainly her imagination seems to be most piqued by the arrival of so many Asian immigrants to Finland’s shores.
While there are some attempts to explore the lives of these immigrants, the novel is, however, seriously let down by some rather heavy-handed stereotypes. The chaotic world of ‘brown’ and ‘yellow’ people is contrasted to a seemingly whitewashed Finland populated by urmänniskor (indigenous Finns). Just why these divergent worlds are defined so sharply by race is never really explored, rendering the story at times an uncomfortable read.