The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers
Genre: Adult Mystery/Magic Realism
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Release date: 2013
Source: Finished copy from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A strange, magical, and sinister tale that slowly strips away layer after layer of carefully guarded secrets.
A person shouldn’t talk too much, Ella realized. With writing, you could construct a whole world, but talking too much could demolish it.
Behind the stunning cover of this book lies a completely unique story, one that I wasn’t expecting. Maybe it was the fact that it was translated from the Finnish, which for me automatically makes a story feel foreign and odd and unusual, no matter how good the translation. In the case of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, this was a very good thing. An underlying creepiness pervades the story from the first page, when Ella Milana discovers that something strange is going on with the books in the town of Rabbit Back. When she comes across a copy of Crime and Punishment has a different ending than it should, Ella starts investigating, and before she knows it, she finds herself mixed up with the odd members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of nine writers who have been mentored most of their lives by the elusive but famous writer Laura White (think J.K. Rowling). This story is not a fast-paced thrill ride, so if that’s the kind of reading material you’re looking for, you might be disappointed. Instead, Rabbit Back has masterfully developed characters and a setting that is nearly a character itself.
Ella is a substitute teacher who has been recently published in the town’s newspaper, Rabbit Tracks. One day she receives news that she has been granted exclusive membership as the tenth member of the Rabbit Back Literature Society. On the evening of her induction into the group, however, a very strange thing happens. Famous writer Laura White vanishes before everyone’s eyes as she is coming down her staircase to greet her guests. In the wake of this tragic event, Ella gets to know the other members of the group, all published writers who have known each other since childhood. She is introduced to “The Game,” a shocking and sometimes cruel method of extracting secrets from each other. Once Ella starts playing The Game, she realizes that the Rabbit Back Literature Society is full of secrets, and so she sets out to solve them, one by one.
Other than a few touches of magic realism, Rabbit Back is mostly a straightforward mystery, but using the word “straightforward” isn’t right at all, because this book has many twists and turns. The story is mostly told from three points of view, Ella’s and two other members of the society: Martii Winter, an overweight but successful writer, and Ingrid Katz, who is also the town librarian. Through their eyes we slowly begin to see how twisted and unusual this group of characters really is.
No one in Rabbit Back seems particularly happy, so it was hard at times to sympathize with the characters. Ella still lives with her parents, and because her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, an awful sadness hangs over their house. I had the feeling that like many small towns, everyone in Rabbit Back was simply getting through each day, without any sense of joy or ambition. When Ella becomes part of the Society and begins to play The Game, she finally has a goal, which is to solve the mystery of the death of a boy who may have once been a member of the group. I loved the characters of Martii and Ingrid in particular, and I loved the way we get to know them better as they play The Game with Ella, even though these passages where the members “spill” their secrets to each other are very uncomfortable to read.
The author infuses his story with odd and sinister details that give Rabbit Back a fairy-tale-like quality. For example, people are always getting lost in the thick woods at the edge of town, and for some reason the dogs in Rabbit Back tend to run away from their homes all the time and form stray packs that can often be found hanging out around Martii Winter’s place. And then there is the strange disappearance of Laura White, a woman who is regarded as mythical to begin with, and whose vanishing act simply reinforces that idea. Even though Laura White as a character is barely in the story at all, her presence hovers over the characters in just about every scene.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society was a happy discovery for me, an atmospheric story that’s hard to categorize. For readers who appreciate a slow unraveling of events, mysteries that seem random at first but then merge into a complete story, and characters that don’t always behave the way you expect, this book should not be missed.
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a finished copy for review.
You can find The Rabbit Back Literature Society here: