Finnish family drama
I’m a little guilty about the way I came about this book. My partner actually found it on the street somewhere, like someone had left it on the roof of a car and had forgotten about it when they had driven off. Naturally, he gave it to me, and, when I saw that it was a library book, naturally I had every intention of returning it. However, because I have an interest in lost books, I thought it would be a good idea to read it first. Ah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I put it on my to-read shelf, and completely forgot about it, and then I realised it had been a really long time since we had found that book. Worried that it would be wildly overdue and would have racked up an enormous amount of fines, I raced through it and returned it to the library insistent on paying them. The librarian, who was very polite, told me that she could not let me pay the fines due to their privacy policies, but reassured me that the fines were small (I actually have the number $7 in my mind) and that she would explain it to her supervisor and try to get the fines waived.
“The Human Part” by Kari Hotakainen and translated by Owen F. Witesman is a novel about an elderly woman called Salme who, while attending a writer’s festival with her daughter, reluctantly agrees to sell her life story to an author experiencing writer’s block. She and her husband, who has stopped speaking, could use the money. As her story and the story of her adult children emerges during their tense meetings together, it is suggested that the author is taking some creative license. Soon he is imagining what Salme’s children must be thinking and doing, and then another character is introduced who will change everything.
I really struggled with this book. Sometimes it’s tempting to give the author the benefit of the doubt and throw the translator under the bus, but it wasn’t the writing that bothered me about this story. Rather, it was clear that this was meant to be a story about people and connection and relationships, but all the characters, with the slight exception of Salme, seemed like cardboard cutouts. Salme’s adult children are depicted as dysfunctional in their own ways (and, to be honest, I think there were three of them but I can only remember two clearly) but apart from their social issues, there wasn’t really much to remember about them.
Hotakainen touches on issues like poverty, mental health and work politics, but never quite manages to say anything particularly meaningful. The story sort of meanders from person to person without ever really finding its voice. The narrative structure, using stories within stories and moving from one character to the next exploring the connections in between, reminded me a lot of a film I saw a long time ago. I think the film did it better.
A rather flat book that sadly didn’t quite seem like it was worth the rigmarole of keeping it to read instead of returning it straightaway.