Reviewed by Andy Turner in SBR 2018:1
Review Section: Fiction
Koka björn sees Niemi return once more to his native Tornedalen in Sweden’s Arctic. The story takes place in 1852, in the village of Kengis, where the consequences of a momentous summer reverberate into a sobering autumn. One of its central figures is the Swedish pastor Lars Levi Laestadius, a prominent revivalist, botanist and teetotaller with Sami roots whose legacy Niemi touched on in Popular Music, the novel which brought him fame. Although there are allusions to Milla Clementsdotter, Laestadius’ spiritual muse, and to the Kautokeino rebellion, references to the spread of Laestadianism across Arctic Scandinavia end there. The rest is fiction, adeptly conjured up through Niemi’s powerful, spellbinding writing.
The nexus of the story is the relationship between Laestadius and a Sami foundling boy, barely able to talk, whom he discovers neglected and abused at the wayside. Laestadius names the boy Jussi, and enters his birth retrospectively in the parish register, thereby symbolically bringing him into existence. Over the years the pastor teaches him the power of letters, reading and language, and respect for indigenous Arctic flora. Jussi grows into a young man whose childhood scars and mental demons set him apart. Many villagers fear this otherness, believing him to be a Noaidi, a Sami shaman capable of sorcery. Then one day the pair make a discovery that will unleash a series of fatal events.
While out walking, the pastor discovers a pole poking out of the black water on the springy marshland. Shaking it, he realises that the glinting in the sludge is blond human hair. A young maid has gone missing. The villagers are convinced she is the victim of a killer bear, and a bounty is promised to whoever can deliver the beast’s skull. Prejudices surface. Swedish- speaking local powers among the poorer Finnish and Sami-speaking villagers become hostile, wanting to maintain the status quo. Brahe, the local bailiff and Michelsson, his petit constable, are among them. But Laestadius will have none of it; his knowledge of the lie of the land and what grows in it tells him that the killer is two-footed. As the number of suspicious deaths that summer grows, despite the sacrificial slaughter of a pregnant bear, the pastor disregards Brahe and Michelsson’s theories of natural causes, accident or misadventure. Instead, he uses contemporary science in the form of daguerreotypy, fingerprints and botanical knowledge to collect evidence for his own theories. In contrast, the bailiff and constable continue to proffer their out-of-date, evidence-scant verdicts with increasing menace.
What of the bear? Niemi’s titles are inventive, and the bear is a metaphor here. Its body represents evil, one of the novel’s subtexts being how evil arises, how it is manifested and feared. The skull houses the soul. An abhorrent analogy is drawn later when two academics visiting Karesuando during Laestadius’ time there look for Sami crania for research purposes. Boiling a stew is how the drunken bear hunters envisage tasting the meat, while boiling the she-bear’s head is the pastor’s strange instruction to Jussi.
Niemi’s narrative technique is beguiling. The novel falls into four sections, each beginning with a verse. You naturally seek to deduce the author of the verses and whether they are written by the same hand. The first-person narrative is shared by Jussi and, as the book progresses, the pastor. However, an omniscient narrator appears in places to intrigue you further. Whose is this voice, and how are they privy to such information?
More than historical crime fiction, Koka björn is a literary novel with crossover points. Niemi’s characterisations are vivid, sharp and credible: these people inhabit your mind long after you have finished the book. A skilled wordsmith and nature writer, Niemi juxtaposes lyrical pastoral beauty with the grotesque and the hideous. He is able to enchant, lull and repulse in equal measure. This is writing that will make you think. The story doesn’t end on the last page.