Everything in the small town of Rabbit Back seems to focus on Laura White, a Tove Jansson-esque children’s author whose strange creature-filled books have captured the hearts of Finnish children for generations. The streets of the town are filled with sculptures of her characters, cafés have tables named after her and everyone has their own stories about the novelist. Her most enduring legacy, however, is that of the Rabbit Back Literature Society; a select group of children that she took under her wing, all of whom went on to be respected authors in their own right. Ella Milana, a substitute teacher recently returned to the town, has dreamt about joining the group for years and her recent short story might be her chance. But first she has to work out what is happening to some of the books in the library – it seems that strangely edited versions of famous books have been appearing on the shelves, seemingly with a life of their own. Before long, Laura White has invited the starstruck teacher to join the society, and then at a party to celebrate the occasion suddenly disappears in a flurry of snow part way through the evening. But while the pursuit of literature lies on the surface of the Society, beneath that dignified skin is a secret game that only members know about. A game that probes into their very being.
The way the novel unfolds is hypnotic – slowly opening doors and dropping ideas like crumbs, as Ella starts to use The Game to try and uncover the secrets hidden by the different members. The Game itself is a dark way for authors to dredge emotion and hidden memories out of fellow associates, allowing them to pilfer and root around for their own stories and gratification. There is often a worrying amount of power involved, and a sexual element that seems to pervade a lot of encounters. The various members of the group are all quite different, seemingly unwilling to converse with each other unless under duress.
There are a nice couple of mysteries deep in the heart of the novel, with Laura White’s disappearance starting the whole thing off, and The Game revealing to Ella the possibility of a previous tenth member who had been excised from the history books. Jealousy and a whiff of murder are only a start, for there are also mysterious dogs hanging outside of people’s houses, shapes in the forest and a plague affecting novels in the library.
It’s all wonderfully inconclusive, leaving ends hanging and plotlines twisting away from the reader. Surreal imagery haunts the characters, and the line between the dream world and reality seems perilously thin, as unexplained events dog the people of the town. I’d rather not talk too much about the novel itself, as it’s best to fully immerse yourself in the world Jäaskeläinen has laid out. This is a story to read slowly and enjoy, one of my favourites of the last few years, managing to conjure up an odd story and also talk about the notion of ideas and where they spring from.