Förlaget (Finland), 2016.
Reviewed by Darcy Hurford in SBR 2017:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
It’s Helsinki, but not as we know it.The opening of Djävulen är en lögnare is set not in the picturesque city centre, but in the blocks of flats on the outskirts, near the end of the metro line – Gårdsbacka, Östra Centrum, Mellungsbacka. This is where Meri, who is Finnish, and Hope from Cameroon met at school and became close friends until Hope and her mother Gloria were deported, leaving Meri to an empty flat and an existence as a school dropout, while her mother Aina moved in with a new husband.
The novel takes place over the course of a day in November, with chapters alternating between Meri in Helsinki and Hope in New Bell, Cameroon. In different ways, both girls undergo something of a transformation. Meri is rudely awoken at seven to find herself the unwilling babysitter of a friend’s daughter. Hope, meanwhile, discovers her mother Gloria has hatched a new plan to get them back to Europe, albeit not to Gårdsbacka. Hope also has a religious encounter, and it is this conversation that gives the novel its title, a quote from Saint John’s Gospel.
Occasionally the novel moves a little too slowly due to the wealth of detail: the finger movements as Meri yet again uses her smartphone, for example, or Aina’s back story. Hope never quite comes alive as a character in the same way that Meri or Gloria do. These, however, are minor reservations. Meri seems to be the character readers are most likely to be drawn to. While Hope has been deported, she at least has a supportive extended family in New Bell, with an uncle willing to pay for her to go to school, and her grandmother. Meri appears to have no support network beyond her smartphone, as Aina is absorbed in an unhappy marriage. Gloria is a more dynamic figure – striding along the street, dressed up as if going to a party but actually going to an internet café to chat to a prospective boyfriend in Europe. It is tempting to see symbolism in the names Gloria and Hope.
Two things are striking. One is the settings. New Bell is vividly brought to life through Hope’s eyes, as are the family conflicts, street life, and the daily annoyances (including lack of Internet access much of the time), although most of the scenes are set either in the family home or in the local church.The kitchen- sink setting in Finland will also come as a surprise to anyone who associates the country with good Pisa results and public health initiatives. Meri lives in social housing, appears to exist on meat pasties and cola, trowels on her make-up and has fallen outside the net when it comes to training or job prospects. What is more, Razai – neutrally and matter-of- factly – shows a school environment in Helsinki where almost everyone is an immigrant. She does not present this as a social issue or a conflict, just as the way things are.
The other is language. The real-life equivalents of Meri and her friends would in all likelihood be speaking Finnish in Helsinki, while the conversations in Cameroon would actually be conducted in English or French. Nonetheless, it feels completely natural to be reading the dialogue in Swedish. Razai has created a Swedish that reflects a different culture, with odd words and phrases in English or French to convey the flavour of Cameroonian speech – a technique shared with other multicultural city novels. The story of Meri and Hope started in Helsinki, but could have taken place in any large European city.