(2013 / 2016) Johanna Sinisalo, Grove Press, £12.99, trdpbk, 307pp, ISBN 978-1-611-85537-1
In an alternative modern day Finland, women are divided into two groups. The Eloi, created to be feminine, good wives and mothers and generally please men. The Morlocks are the women considered unfeminine, too intelligent and condemned to manual labour only. Vanna is a Morlock pretending to be an Eloi to survive while her sister Manna is a full Eloi. With a man who knows who she really is, called Jare, they deal in the banned substances of chillies. As Vanna tries to find out what has happened to her sister after her marriage, the two join a religious group that is based on vegetarianism and plant growing. Vanna joins them in their work to create the hottest and most powerful chilli ever, ‘the core of the sun’.
This is a book that has been called an example of what has been called the ‘new weird’ but to me, it feels nearer social satire. Sinisalo’s use of the terms Eloi and Morlocks are a clear reference to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, but these were supposed to be the ultimate forms of humans extrapolated from the class divide. In finding the points of reference for how this vision of Finland came about, Sinisalo finds the roots in the eugenic ideas of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century being used as the basis for the divergence point. While some of the manipulations are genetic, Sinisalo emphasises the social devices and media that push the Eloi into accepting their status, chilling making the point about how woman are fed certain narratives to be pushed into a role into society.
It helps the novel that keeps the scope of the narrative centred on three characters and how it affects them. Vanna is the main character but her voice does shift from her first person narration in the present to the letters that she writes to a sister that she fears may be lost. The novel also attempts to explore the mind of Vanna, in her emotional state. Sinisalo uses the metaphor of being trapped in a flooding cellar to give us an idea of the depression that she suffers. It is this despair that starts to lead her to her chilli habit.
I will be honest, the premise behind this did not sound promising, because it felt as if the narrative was trying to combine two different ideas. But Sinisalo is able to combine the two strands. While the banning of chillies, does have some good moments in its satire of the various wars on drugs, it’s link to the Eloi storyline is the idea of a society that is so afraid of sensations or feelings that it cannot control, that interfere with the idea of what everything should be, that it seeks to oppress them.
However, in the last section, the (well-researched) study of chillies is used as starting point to go into more strongly science-fiction/mystical areas. This does get a bit risky, as it felt to me as it seemed as if this was going away from the main narrative and themes. Sinisalo does manage to make it work and provide a affecting climax to the story, but I can understand how it might polarise some people.
Despite that, this is defiantly worth a read. It is a powerful science-fiction satirical comment on men’s desire to control woman that ranks up with The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. It may not be as well-known as these two books, but it should be sought out. Highly recommended.
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