Sunday, March 29, 2009

Finland: 'Ice Moon' by Jan Costin Wagner - a strange and haunting story cracked through with grief.

"Sanna was dead, and this fact would govern his life from now on."

This is a book I gave up on first time round. Not because of any fault in the prose or story, but because of my own situation I found the opening almost unbearable to read. I put it aside for a while, but the quality of the writing drew me back in.

Young Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa's wife dies of cancer and now everywhere Kimmo sees people he imagines them dying. Driven back to work by the appalling emptiness of his life he leads the investigation into a series of killings in the city of Turku, on Finland's west coast. Kimmo's isolation is reflected in his home outside the city in woods by a lake.

This is not a whodunnit: we know who the killer is very quickly and follow his story in a parallel narrative to Kimmo's investigations. His superiors are preoccupied with a search for the attempted assassin of a local politician, which descends into a farce and his immediate boss Ketola seems to be losing his mind. His colleagues are deftly drawn, and his relationship with the volatile Ketola strengthens as the book progresses. Turku and its surroundings are a vividly portrayed backdrop against which the story is played out.

The city of Turku is on the SW coast of Finland, 2 hours drive from Helsinki. It's situated at the mouth of the Aura River on the Baltic Sea, but sheltered by an archipelago of islands. The summer average temperatures are surprisingly similar to those of London, England, though the winters of course are much colder. It's roughly on the same latitude as Bergen, Stockholm, and Lerwick in the Shetland Isles, though in my ignorance I always thought of Finland as much further north.

Turku is the oldest city in Finland, and its history plays a part in the story: the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 destroyed most of the city - which was at that time the largest in Finland - including many significant buildings; after this, power transferred to Helsinki, where it remains. Turku is linked to Stockholm in Sweden by ferry, a 10 hour Baltic crossing, which Kimmo takes to interview a witness.

The only area which survived the Great Fire was a hillside on the outskirts of the city, which since 1940 has been preserved as the Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, an open-air living history museum in which the visitor can experience life as it was in Turku 200 years ago. It consists of a dozen or so blocks of original 18th and 19th century buildings. During the summer season, the museum's workshops have craftspeople working there every day, and this site plays a significant role in Ice Moon.

Also important in the story is the little seaside town of Naantali, ten miles west of Turku city centre, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Apart from its beaches and the islands of the archipelago, it's also home to Moomin World, a theme park based on the Moomin books by Tove Jansson - one of the world's best theme parks for children according to The Independent on Sunday.

Ice Moon is Wagner's second novel, but the first to be translated into English. The author himself is German but is very familiar with the landscapes of Finland - clear from reading the novel - as his wife is Finnish and they divide their time between the two countries. I look forward to reading more about Detective Kimmo Joentaa.


Anonymous said...

Lovely review. I, too, found the theme very hard to read/bear for personal reasons, but strangely comforting in some ways as he (the author) seems to "get" it. Anyway, be that as it may, I very much enjoyed this little book. I liked the humour in the Ketola character. I seem to remember not being very impressed with the "solution to the mystery" aspects, but enjoying the book a lot for its atmosphere and characterisation, as well as its strong sense of place. Thank you as usual for the lovely mapping!

Dorte H said...

What a really interesting post which is so much more than a review. And much new information for me, because unlike Norway and Sweden, Finland feels quite far away from our perspective. The language, the culture, and their huge Russian neighbour - several reasons why I know British culture & literature much better.
But you have really made me curious :)

Lauren said...

I thought this was a lovely book, although perhaps better on atmosphere than plot. Wagner really seems to know Finland well - I've read a few Finnish crime novels, and they're not always that atmospheric (having a sauna every five minutes doesn't count) - so this was nicely different.

Will definitely read more by him.

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