Translated by Lola Rogers
In my ever-growing experience of Nordic reads, I think that the Finns win in terms of quirk factor! And, Summer Fishing in Lapland is perhaps the quirkiest of the lot so far – described as Finnish weird in terms of genre. It is a delightful, madcap adventure and debut novel by journalist Karila, and I am delighted to be part of Pushkin Press’s blog tour for it.
Elina makes an annual pilgrimage back home from the south to the remote wilds of Lapland where her family farm is situated at the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp. Her parents are now passed away, and Hoot, an old neighbour now looks after the buildings. The novel begins thus:
Due to a string of regrettable occurrences, Elina Ylijaako had to catch a pike from a certain pond by June 18th every year.
Her life depended on it.
She set out in her car on June 14th, when the floods up north were sure to have receded, so she would be able to reach the pond if she wore rubber boots. She left early and drove all day. The farther she drove, the fewer the towns, service stations, and villages along the road becae. The trees got shorter. Eventually the villages ran out. Nothing but forest.
This part of northern Lapland near the Arctic Circle is so remote, there is a Finnish government guard post on the road advising drivers to turn back!
The next morning she sets out to catch her pike, picking her way through the swampy bog to the pond, the mosquitoes and horseflies having a ball. The pike, however, is not playing the game, breaking her fishing line, refusing to be caught. This necessitates a visit to the village bait shop – an oddity in that a tiny village has such an emporium with its oddball proprietor Keijo.
She returns to get that pike again, but this time, it isn’t to be either when a ‘knacky’ rises up from the pond. We’ve heard talk of weird creatures such as raskels already in the text, but this is the first time we meet one. The knacky is a dangerous kind of swamp monster, and he lets the pike go.
The knacky grinned. Opened his mouth and laughed. The wind started to blow. It brought fat gray clouds with it from beyond the forest. They darkened the sun. In the dimness, the pond and the knacky began to blend into one, and Elina turned and walked away, knowing without looking that the place where the pond had been was now a dark opening, a portal to somewhere.
We cut now to another character, Police Detective Janatuinen, whose partner manages to break his leg so he doesn’t have to go north. Janatuinen goes through the same checkpoint and heads for Vuipio, stopping at the bait shop to ask where she can find Elina Ylijaako. Keijo is evasive, but tells her he’s had a break-in at home, and asks if she could check it out. This is how Janatuinen finds herself the object of the attentions of a raskel – which had been causing mayhem in Keijo’s house. The furry humanoid raskel felt like a very dim Wookie to me! Legend has it that the raskels were herders way back when, but this one, known as Musti, attaches itself firmly to Janatuinen now, like a pet dog.
Janatuinen finds it very difficult to get any sense from the inhabitants of the village, who are steeped in folklore and the supernatural, all these weird critters, believers in witches and curses, and Elina’s mother while she was still alive was a powerful witch they say.
In between following Elina and Janatuinen in their converging storylines, we get some chapters from Elina’s schooldays, where she was the odd one out and bullied terribly, until Jousia took her side, later becoming the her first true love. But by the time university beckoned, their relationship soured though when Jousia suggested they shouldn’t be exclusive to get more life experience. It is the curse that Jousia puts on Elina where the pike steals her soul that forces her to return each year.
Can Elina break the curse? Will Janatuinen get any sense out of anyone, and why is she after Elina? Will there be more weird monsters?
I loved the way the surreal creatures – who all seem to derive from humans originally – are part of the villagers’ lives. The raskel was almost adorable! The knacky meanwhile is not, nor the wraith who takes over the mayor’s body; they add an element of folk-horror to the story. However, it is the shaggy dog stories told by the villagers and their antics that make this book so delightful. The way they give Janatuinen the run-around also reminded me of the antics of Roland in Schitt’s Creek!
Juhani Karila not only brings the supernatural creatures to life, the other abundant wildlife – primarily insects, plus that pike – buzz all over the page; we feel every bite, or mozzie swatted. The swamp, the forest, the murky pond all feel so real. I loved that he gave us Lapland in summer, very different to the snow-covered landscape we tend to first think of.
Elina is without doubt a spiky character, but one for whom we develop strong empathy, willing her to finally catch that pike and to outwit the knacky. Janatuinen, meanwhile, reminded me of Marge Gunderson in Fargo with her no nonsense attitude. Two great character leads indeed.
Lola Rogers’ translation is lively and I’m sure she had fun working on this super novel. Given the Finn’s seeming love of quirkiness in their novels, I can totally understand why it was a huge bestseller in Karila’s homeland. I hope it does well for him in translation too. If you fancy a comic and quirky, yet dramatic novel full of folklore made real, this would be a perfect summer read. I loved it!
Source: Review copy – thank you. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 352 pages.
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