The last Finnish novel I read was Philip Teir’s The Winter War, a witty, engrossing novel about love, marriage and divorce. Jussi Valtonen’s They Know Not What They Do encompasses much more than that but it begins with the marriage between Joe, an American neuroscientist, and Alina, the Finnish woman he meets at a conference with whom he falls in love and has a child, a relationship which lasts just a few years. Two decades later it seems that Joe may be about to pay the price of turning his back on his son and returning to the States.
Joe never quite comes to understand the Finnish, seeing them as insular and self-contained in contrast to his American colleagues. With Alina caught up in caring for Samuel, no longer sharing the details of the work with which they were both involved, their marriage begins to unravel. Fast forward twenty years and Joe is settled in Baltimore, running a university research project and living in the suburbs with his second wife and two daughters, one of whom has become involved with a shady marketing company. When Joe becomes the target of animal rights activists, the family’s carefully choreographed routines breakdown. Joe is jolted by a phone call from Alina telling him that Samuel is in the States. Given Samuel’s part in bringing down a powerful firm involved in animal testing, it seems all too likely that he’s one of those targeting Joe. Bodyguards are engaged along with the services of a techie whose job is to root out the smallest clue lurking in the interstices of the internet. This long complex novel follows Joe, Alina and Samuel, ending unexpectedly one hot Baltimore night
Valtonen begins his novel in 1994 when Joe and Alina first get together, shifting his perspective from one to the other as he unfolds each side of the story. The novel addresses a multitude of themes wrapped up in a carefully plotted story with a thread of suspense running through it. The way in which technology has invaded our lives is particularly sharply portrayed, chillingly extrapolated in the shape of the iAm, the insidious gadget Joe’s teenage daughter has been given by a marketing company masquerading as a campaign for children’s welfare. The organisations whose tentacles are deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives are unsettlingly well drawn – step forward Google – and the plotting is cleverly executed. It wasn’t an unalloyed joy for me, however. The scope is a little too ambitious – I would have preferred it if Valtonen had concentrated more on the technology theme – and it’s over long. That said, it’s a novel that offers its readers a good deal to think about not least what sort of trail they’re leaving on the web.