The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Sometimes a book takes you completely unawares. You have no expectations with it at all and it beguiles and then completely charms the pants off you, or maybe that should be charms the dust jackets off you? This was the case with The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I had no real prior knowledge of it other than I wanted to read it, when Kate chose it for December’s edition of Hear Read This. My only real thought was that it might be about books, it is and brilliantly bonkers and bookish all the way through.

Pushkin Press, 2014, paperback, fiction, 345 pages, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, kindly sent by the publisher

I am going to do something that I never do with a book, I am going to steal the blurb from the back of The Rabbit Back Literature Society because I simply would not be able to sum it up any better and indeed would over complicate it and put you off if I tried. So here it is. Only very special people are chosen by children’s author Laura White to join ‘The Society’, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, literature teacher and possessor of beautifully curving lips. But soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual, ‘The Game’? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura’s winter party, in a whirlwind of snow? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, disturbing secrets that had been buried come to light…

She wasn’t thrilled. Not at all.
She’d wanted to do literary-historical research that might bring to light a few smallish skeletons – secret relationships, homosexuality, that sort of thing. Pleasant little scandals. Murder victims weren’t the sort of thing she’d been hoping to dig up.
Amateur detectives in fiction always annoyed Ella. They were so unrealistic. She didn’t intend to be the Rabbit Back version of Miss Marple or a cheap Baker Street knock-off, and she really didn’t like the idea of making the tabloids. That was no way to advance an academic career.

I have to say I was completely charmed by The Rabbit Back Literature Society from the start. From the moment we first met Ella as she describes herself; academic, unable to have children, with good lips and something artistic in the colour of her nipples, I knew I was going to be reading something that didn’t really fit into a mold or genre, rather breaking out of it instead. That is the kind of book this is and as we follow Ella – as she tries to work out just what on earth is going on with this secret writers society, the strange changing books in the library and the mysterious society member who has vanished – we discover a book that straddles over all the genres and then straddles them all riding them like a crazy pony. It’s contagious, look what it is doing to me as I write about it. Some of you might be put off because of this, normally I would, yet it works.

The novel is a crime novel, there is a mystery, or indeed two, as it unravels. It is a fantasy novel, with the atmosphere that anything could happen in the land of Rabbit Back; people vanishing in a whirlwind of snow, gnomes in the gardens attacking the gardeners etc. It is a comedy, I have not laughed as loudly at a book in sometime, generally because the giggles are quite dirty flirty ones from the accidental pornographic advent calendars the local children get by mistake a few pages in, onwards. It is a gothic ghost story. It is also a sinister thriller that will have you turning the pages. At its heart though it is a beautifully written literary love letter to, well, literature.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society really celebrates everything there is about reading, writing, readers and authors. It looks at how important escapism is, at how everyone can read a book differently (even without the endings changing as they do here) and how we use stories to cope with difficult things, or tell ourselves/create stories to make things better. It looks at authors and shows how writing is in its own way a kind of magical power, yet at the same time these people are all just very ordinary and shouldn’t be treated as anything special, even if some of them think they should. It is really all about the power of stories and storytellers, and what those writers can do with their powers, be it the bad or be it the good. (This is where ‘The Game’ and ‘Spilling’ is so brilliant, but I won’t spoil it!) It is about the power of words really.

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black and make you fatter or thinner by ten kilos or so, whatever comes to me. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of your eyes, perhaps this left one, into a glass eye.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”
Winter smiled.
“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident?”
She gave a shrill laugh. “You are truly awful!” she said. “I’m not telling you anything now, or I might end up in your next novel.”
Winter gave a slight bow.
“That is your right. It would no doubt put you in much less danger of being used. But I may never the less steal your way of moving, the expressions on your face! Perhaps I’ll even take that way you have of smiling with your mouth open, your little tongue peeking out now and then between your teeth to see what’s happening in the world. And those freckles that start on the bridge of your nose  and continue all the way down between your breasts, that’s a detail that might come in handy in a piece I am writing at the moment.”
The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

I really, really, really enjoyed (and loved a little bit) The Rabbit Back Literature Society. It isn’t the perfect book, on occasion the book goes off on tangents it never comes back to in its weird and wonderful way yet I didn’t care because I just bloody loved reading every single page of it. If you could get an amalgamation of all the types of rollercoaster’s and then converted them into a book, I think you would get this one. It sounds an odd analogy I admit, I think it is one Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen would appreciate though. I really hope that Pushkin Press are planning on translating all his books and bringing them to many more readers.

For more of my thoughts along with Kate and Gavin (Rob was sick) you can hear the latest episode of Hear Read This here. Anyone else read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, if so what did you make of it? I have a feeling it could be a marmite book, though if you love books and everything booky I can’t see how you couldn’t love it.

5 Comments

Filed under Books of 2014, Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen, Pushkin Press, Review

5 responses to “The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

  1. CaroC

    Thought it was a charming story, must read it again

  2. Carrie Mercer

    Um, I heard you say this on the show, too, and I don’t know what it means: what is a “marmite book” Forgive me for being a daft American.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds very marmite to me and I keep hearing good things about this – off to add it to the wishlist!

  4. I loved it too. Full of fabulist fun and mega-metaficitional. Something about the resolution bothered me, but I can’t quite remember. I’d love a sequel.

  5. It’s a lovely book, isn’t it? I’m normally bothered by plot threads not being tied up or explained but I actually think it was the right solution in this case, as the whole point seemed to me to be all those questions of what is imagined and what is real. Very hard to write about without revealing anything, though, so well done on that front!

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