Tag Archives: Kristian London

They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen (transl. by Kristian London): Contemporary dystopia

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.

Books to Look Out for in November 2017

Cover imageEdging ever closer to the end of the year with this preview which may well be the last set of new titles from me unless December has more to offer than novelty books and humour. Let’s hope it does. November kicks off with a novel I’m in two minds about, Richard Flanagan’s First Person – I avoided the Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road from the Deep South but very much enjoyed Gould’s Book of Fish. Based on a true story, First Person is about Kif Kehlmann, a ghost-writer who takes on the task of writing the memoir of Siegfred Heidl, about to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. ‘Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl – and who is Kif Kehlmann? As time runs out, one question looms above all others: what is the truth? By turns compelling, comic, and chilling, this is a haunting journey into the heart of our age’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.

The lure of Heather, the Totality is the writer rather than the novel’s premise which sounds as if it might wander off into thriller territory. You may already know Matthew Weiner’s name from the addictive Mad Men series. Set in Manhattan – inevitably another lure for me – Weiner’s debut is about the wealthy Breakstone family whose sweet-natured, beautiful daughter Heather takes a wrong turn as a teenager. ‘An extraordinary first novel of incredible pull and menace. Heather, The Totality demonstrates perfectly [Weiner’s] forensic eye for the human qualities that hold modern society together, and pull it apart’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some smart, stylish writing.

Set in 1950, Eliza Robertson’s debut, Demi-Gods, is also about a girl who finds herself led astray.Cover image Willa’s mother has a new boyfriend whose sons come as part of the package. When her sister pairs off with the elder son, nine-year-old Willa finds herself caught up in his younger brother’s wicked games which become sexual as they grow up. Willa’s efforts to change the nature of their relationship result in a devastating turn of events, apparently. ‘Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature’ say the publishers which sounds up my street.

Jussi Valtonen won his country’s Finlandia Prize with They Know Not What They Do, bought by one in two Finns, apparently. Hard to imagine those kind of sales figures for a novel here in the UK. It’s about a celebrated neuroscientist living with his family in the States whose lab is targeted by animal rights activists. Shortly after the attack he’s called by the wife he abandoned in Finland over twenty years ago together with their young son who may now be after revenge. ‘As Joe struggles to protect his new family from the increasing threat of violence – and to save his eldest daughter from the clutches of an unscrupulous tech company – he is forced to reconsider his priorities and take drastic action to save those he loves’ say the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound my cup of tea but how can one in two Finns be wrong? And it’s published by Oneworld whose sharp editorial eye I trust.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet got around to Ali Smith’s Autumn, which kicked off her Seasonal Quartet last year. It’s November so it’s time for Winter whichcasts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ say the publishers. I could do with something ‘merry’ to help me along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

There was a time when my heart would have sunk when I discovered that a new title from a favourite novelist was a collection of short stories but I’m a reformed character. The subjects of the stories in William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth range from an art dealer who tries to give up his philandering habits to a couple who tell the story of their relationship backwards while the eponymous Bethany’s tale is about a year of tentative self-discovery, apparently. I won’t say my heart sang as loudly as it would at the announcement of a new Boyd novel, but I am looking forward to reading this collection.

 That’s it for November’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested. Shortish paperback post to follow soon…