Little Siberia is the fourth book by Antti Tuomainen that I’ve reviewed. Tuomainen seems to have made his career writing stylish, thoughtful thrillers, but his last two books have been rather more experimental: serious in ambition and subject but…well, frankly, they’ve been very funny. Little Siberia sees Tuomainen blend these approaches. The resulting novel is a psychological exploration of people who are tested in ways that are in some ways ordinary and some not, in a setting that is both ordinary in its claustrophobic setting of rural Finland and extraordinary in its preposterousness.
The book is closer to a conventional thriller than Tuomainen’s recent outings, though I am not sure we can really take too solemnly a novel which includes a scene in which a corpse is controlled, as though a puppet, through the use of a scarf. And there are plenty of lolz as our narrator, Joel, has to decide what grammatical persona is preferred by his wife’s supposed lover, so that he can impersonate him, or talks himself out of accepting a €10,000 bribe by proving that he could be down on the deal if it led to tobacco addiction. Tuomainen remains fond of puns and verbal games and the novel is translated crisply from the Finnish by David Hackston.
The choice of Joel as narrator is very smart. He has a number of physical, psychological, spiritual and emotional challenges to overcome as the novel progresses. As a pastor, he can question his own inner voice – indeed, his thoughts are almost a public document – and his running commentary leads to a character examination that is deft, honest and comprehensive. As in his previous book, The Mine, Tuomainen invites us to concede that it’s our choices that make us what we are, and that there are consequences arising from our actions. But here he also concedes that our ability to act may be influenced by external factors – some characters see the meteorite (did I mention there’s a meterorite? There’s a meteorite) and the money it could represent as their ticket away from this frozen, bleak town that is near nothing but the Russian border.
Deep down, this is a novel about faith (I’d love to read David Lodge’s thoughts on it.) Some of that fits with Joel’s day job, but Tuomainen’s quite eclectic in his definition and some of the most effective scenes explore disbelief and jealousy in particular. It is when Joel suddenly finds himself without an anchor, unable to trust anyone, including himself, that he is at his most desperate.
I loved this book. It’s inviting and accessible and entices you in, and you think you are just there, being entertained, and by the end you realise that you’ve had the chance to think about what’s ethical and what’s important; and by the end you’ve finished a journey that you didn’t even really know you were on. It’s outstanding, and Antti Tuomainen’s writing just gets better and better.
Thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for the review copy.