Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

PUSHKIN PRESS, 2014/2006

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join “The Rabbit Back Literature Society,” an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, a young literature teacher. Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried start to come to light…

The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the debut novel of Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen and it was originally published in 2006. The English translation, published in 2014, was chosen as one of the Waterstones’ 2014 Book Club books. Had it not been for the popularity of the translation, I’d probably have never heard of this book – which is quite bizarre, I admit. However, the literary premise of the book sounded intriguing, so I decided to give the book a go.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society follows Ella Milana, who is a recent Literature Studies graduate and whose Master’s thesis focuses on children’s author Laura White’s Creatureville series. Ella is currently working as a substitute teacher in her home town, Rabbit Back, which consequently is also the hometown of Laura White and the famous Rabbit Back Literature Society. Ella’s life is at a crossroad – she has recently separated from her fiancée who could not deal with the fact that Ella can never have children, her father suffers from Alzheimers, and the substitute teaching offers no joys either. However, when Ella receives a tampered copy of Crime and Punishment, she discovers that there is a mystical disease that is changing all the books in the library. Soon after she receives an invitation to join the prestigious Rabbit Back Literature Society. However, Ella’s dreams of finally meeting the elusive Laura White are crushed when the author suddenly disappears into the air in the middle of Ella’s welcoming party. Now Ella is left to her own devices to navigate her way through the mysteries of the society.

The story of The Rabbit Back Literature Society is a mix of magical realism and the questions of authorship and inspirations. The book introduces a variety of characters, and as Ella plays “The Game” with the other members of the society, they all bleed. Rabbit Back is not a your typical Finnish small town, for there are many curious incidents, people lost in the woods, strange sights, and stray dogs (we rarely have those in Finnish cities). The magical elements don’t take the center stage in the book, but they provide a fairytale-esque backdrop to the story itself. Despite the whimsical cover and the fact that a lot of the book focuses around fairy tales and folklore, The Rabbit Back Literature Society is definitely a book for adult audiences. It includes some violent scenes as well as some seriously dark undertones.

Despite some of the gruesome elements in the story, I loved this book. It put me under a spell and confused me all the way from here to Sunday. In the end, I didn’t really know what was real and what wasn’t, which is a mark of a well-executed magical realism book. The subtext on authorship, integrity and inspiration was thought-provoking and offered insights I hadn’t come across before.  My only concern is that with a story as wide and large as The Rabbit Back Literature Society there might have been a bit too many elements in  the story for it stay coherent. By cutting out some of the plot lines and backgrounds, there might have been more depth to individual characters and themes.

The book presents an abundance of questions without providing all the answers, but there are a lot of hints. Some you can deduce by by reading between the lines – although people might interpret these hints differently. The Rabbit Back Literature Society would be a great book club book because it offers a variety of themes and I think is made to be talked about. I’d highly recommend this to everyone who isn’t too queasy about grit and enjoys being lost in magical realism.



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