Title: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.
Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.
However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.
Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.
This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.
Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.
Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.
Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.
Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.
Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.
I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.
It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out :)