Review: Tähtikirkas, lumivalkea by Joel Haahtela (eng. Star Bright, Snow White)

OTAVA, 2013

Disclaimer: This book has, unfortunately, not been translated into English. Thus all the excerpts here have been translated by yours truly.

Tainted by a tragedy in his homeland, a young man writes diary entries in Paris in 1889. The young man succeeds to gain a position as a correspondent in a news agency and takes the reader on a magical trip to sizzling Berlin and its intoxicating nights, and later far far away to the colonialised Far East.

In 2012 in Helsinki a descendant of this young man finds his diaries and discovers that every one of us leaves a mark on the world. But there are those that pay a dearer price for it, and who mourn for the sake of others.

Similarly to Neil Gaiman, of whom I’ve written here previously, Joel Haahtela is one of those authors who I’ve been meaning get into more and to discover what the hype around him is really about. My first try with Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point) wasn’t really a big hit, but I’d heard much praise for his newest novel, Star Bright, Snow White, that I decided to include it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. And having now read the novel, it turns out that I still don’t quite get the hype, but do enjoy reading and admire his writing style.

The story of Star Bright, Snow White follows a young man who has been banished from his home country Finland to Paris, France. On his partly self-inflicted exile the young man writes in his diary letters to his lover, who he’ll probably never see again. The book is told in diary entries that slowly reveal what caused the young man to abandon his love, his art studies and his country and how this trauma is reflected as years and decades go by. Despite his Finnish background, the young man speaks rather fluent French and, through his uncle’s connections, he is employed in a French news agency during The Great Exhibition 1889. About a decade later the man has been promoted to foreign correspondent – first to Berlin in 1913–1914 and later on an excursion to the Far East in early 1920s. Star Bright, Snow White is a story of an idealistic budding artist on a crash course with the brutalities of life and in developing an identity.

Like Katoamispiste (The Vanishing Point), Star Bright, Snow White is  a beautifully written exploration of humanity, in which style runs the game. Haahtela describes vividly the historical aspects of Paris in late 1889, The Great Exhibition, Berlin in the 1913, and the self-induced alienation and estrangement that the character feels towards his homeland. It is a puzzle with missing pieces in which the reader has no clear answers. For example, is the main character trying to escape from his past by running away and diving head first into his work, or is it simply his a fear of inadequacy? The journal entries of the book cover short periods of time and can often jump as much as 15 years forward without any explanation. As a whole, Star Bright, Snow White was an interesting and emotional experience – especially the final notes of the diary were heart-wrenching.

Haahtela has a talent for writing historical fiction with his own style and the time periods covered in this book were definitely ones that I haven’t read much about and that appealed to me very much. However, the novel left me questioning whether I had grasped it’s meaning or not. Right when I felt like I got it, it seemed to slip away from my hand and run between my fingers. Also the main character stayed aloof and I didn’t really get a sense of him. As for the present day part, I didn’t really care that much for it except that it brought some sort of closure to the story. I’d recommend Star Bright, Snow White to readers who enjoy complex characters, unanswered questions, and a bit of artsy European history thrown into the mix.



2 thoughts on “Review: Tähtikirkas, lumivalkea by Joel Haahtela (eng. Star Bright, Snow White)

    • I should hope so. I think it would work well in translation and that it might fit well into, say, Peirene’s catalogue. Perhaps I should send them a suggestion?

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