Review: THE HEALER by Antti Tuomainen

TheHealerTuomainenAntti18476_fAt some point in the future climate change has had the devastating environmental impact scientists have warned us about for years and in Helsinki the social order has all but collapsed as those who can afford to flee north, and those remaining fight each other over housing, food, jobs or for no reason at all. Johanna Lehtinen is a journalist who has been contacted by someone calling themselves The Healer who has claimed responsibility for a series of murders of prominent people whose common trait is that they are, in the killer’s eyes, especially responsible for the environmental degradation everyone is living with. Johanna is determined to track down this vicious killer even without the help of the resource-depleted police. Three days before Christmas in this unspecified future year Johanna disappears along with the photographer who was on assignment with her. Her husband,Tapani, is bereft but becomes single-minded in his quest to find his wife, alive and healthy.

If, like me, you’re all ‘serial killered out’ have no fear: this novel is barely about the killer at all. It’s not even really about the attempt to find and stop him. To me it’s a story about a man’s love for his wife and his need to hold on to that one thing while the world he has known collapses. And given that I am the least romantic person on the planet it’s a bit of a surprise then that I liked the book so very, very much.

One of the many things I adored about this book is its length. At under 250 pages it’s almost a short story in comparison to the doorstop-sized tomes being published these days but I’m not just happy to have come across a book that didn’t require weightlifting skills to read it. I truly believe it takes more talent to write with brevity and conciseness, especially when you still manage to produce as a thoroughly satisfying novel as someone who has double the word count at their disposal. And the writing here is incredibly good, each word imbued with heft and meaning, nothing extraneous. I imagine it’s difficult enough to produce a beautifully written book in one language. To turn someone else’s words into beauty in a second language must be infinitely harder and so I am truly humbled by Lola Rogers’ contribution as translator.

The characters are another striking feature of the novel. Tapani is a poet (though he’s the first to admit an unsuccessful one) whose life is given structure and direction by the process of writing. He is therefore in some ways the classic fish out of water when he is forced to dive into the physical world of investigation, though some of his the skills he uses in his work, such as a deep reservoir of patience, serve him well in his new role too. He makes new connections too including an African cab driver who has come to the city because it offers more opportunities than his homeland and a policeman who has lost access to virtually all the usual tools of his job due to the crumbling economy and social structure but has, oddly I suppose, retained his integrity. These two and several other people Tapani meets along the way help build a delicate hope that a future society burdened by the product of our shortcomings will not entirely have lost its humanity.

It’s not all romance and poetry though, there’s a first-class tale of suspense told too as Tapani goes after any lead, however insubstantial or tangential it appears. As he talks to her boss, her best friend and others he learns things he never knew about his wife’s past which helps to narrow down what has happened in her present. At the same time he reflects on their shared history and these flashbacks, short and sparsely written though they may be, are utterly gorgeous in the simple way they depict the couple’s love.

Although it’s a relatively minor theme here I can’t help but be struck by how often the changing nature of the media crops up as a theme in the European fiction I read. Liza Marklund, Thomas Enger and Stieg Larsson have all written stories which rail passionately against the modern trend towards populism over ‘real’ journalism. Tuomainen also addresses this theme such as when Johanna’s boss explains to Tapani the crux of the problem

Then I’ve got reporters like, for instance, Johanna, who want to tell the people the truth. And I’m always asking them, what fucking truth? And they never have a good answer. All they say is that people should know. And I ask, but do they want to know. And more importantly, do they want to pay to know?.

Indeed.

It’s difficult to explain how a book set in a deteriorating world in which it is almost constantly raining and where a serial killer is at large can be uplifting but THE HEALER is somehow life-affirming and beautiful despite its grim demeanour. Perhaps it’s the presence of a poet in the pages (for even unsuccessful poets have, I think, a different kind of soul than the rest of us) but somehow Tuomainen has written a sad but hopeful book that was an absolute treat to read. Highly recommended, and not just to crime fans.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Thanks to Sarah whose review prompted me to track this one down

Translator Lola Rogers
Publisher Harvill Secker [2013]
ISBN 9781846555879
Length 246 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series standalone (?)

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12 Responses to Review: THE HEALER by Antti Tuomainen

  1. Sarah says:

    Glad you liked it Bernadette. It’s beautifully written I agree and definitely different from other crime books out there. It would be nice to see more Finnish books in translation if this is indicative of the quality of them.

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    • Yes indeed, I’ve only read James Thompson’s stuff but he’s a ‘hybrid’ I suppose in that he was born in the US though has lived in Finland for a long time (and writes in English). I wonder if Tuomainen’s earlier two novels will now be translated. Hope so.

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  2. Bernadette – I’m so very glad you liked this. When I read Sarah’s review I was struck by the relationship between Johanna and Tapani. That strikes me here, too. And it’s good to hear you felt this book was uplifting despite the context. I really do need to read it. Oh, and I couldn’t agree with you more about the length issue. But you don’t want me cluttering up your comment space with that diatribe… Thanks for the (as ever) excellent review.

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  3. Kathy D. says:

    Yeah! A 250-page book. That alone could sell me on it, but your positive comments draw me in (sign). Oh, so many good recommendations lately, the TBR list is resisting more additions, but they’re going on it anyway. It’s not always easy to find these books over here but I’ll try at some future point.

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  4. Barbara says:

    What a good review! I liked this book, too, which is strangely affirming though the economic/environmental catastrophe he describes seems irreversible.

    A handful of translations have been coming out lately, which is excellent news. Finns are great readers and have a lively book culture for a fairly small country (5 million) – though possibly Iceland has them beat on a per capita basis. Imagine keeping a language and literature alive in a country with only 319,000 residents! Bless translators everywhere.

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  5. Belle Wong says:

    Nice review, Bernadette. I’m tempted to pick this one up, even though it’s not really something I normally would. I tend to not like books with dystopian elements, but this one does look interesting.

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    • I’m not much of a one for dystopian themes either Belle…it is present here but (I think) only to provide a reason why the police aren’t really interested in looking for Johanna and why Tapani has to do it all himself.

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  6. angelasavage says:

    Great review, Bernadette. You make the book sound so enticing, I might have to overcome my aversion to Nordic noir and add it to the TBR pile (yeah, I know, I’m a freak going against the grain like this…).

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    • Thanks Angela. This is Nordic crime in name/setting only…I promise. I reckon if in your head you substituted Phnom Penh or Melbourne each time they say Helsinki you wouldn’t know you were reading a nordic book at all.

      Though this does raise a possible future blog post the whole Nordic crime phenomenon….

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  7. col says:

    Heavy sigh, great review and you’ve sold it to me…..damn!

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  8. Pingback: Books of the Month – April 2013 | Reactions to Reading

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