The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
Pub. Date: January 20, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Thomas Dunne Books!!)
Summary: 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: a young literature teacher named Ella.
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 for years start to come to light…
Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery, Magical Realism
Recommended for: Readers who enjoy their mysterious societies with a touch of the surreal, fans of Finnish literature
Nordic fiction has been skyrocketing in popularity these past few years, largely in part to a certain girl and her dragon tattoo. Personally, I’m all for this new wave of literature – not only does it introduce me to new author (yay, more books!), but I’ve come to discover I really like their ‘flavor,’ so to speak. I’m not sure how much of this is simply me projecting my thoughts onto these books, but the (admittedly tiny) handful of Nordic novels I’ve read have all had a cold, wintery feel and I’m really enjoying this, especially at this time of the year.
So when I first heard about The Rabbit Back Literature Society, I was instantly intrigued. A super elite society comprised of writers, a newly inducted member, a sudden disappearance. Is it all linked? Just what is going on in this tiny town? The comparisons to Twin Peaks and Donna Tartt certainly didn’t hurt either!
Twenty-six-year-old Ella is a substitute teacher in the sleepy village of Rabbit Back, Finland. She has dreams of becoming a published author, but has only made it as far as getting a few stories printed in the town paper. Her world turns upside down one day as she’s grading papers and comes across a curiously-written report…detailing a different set of events than the plot that Ella remembers. Upon further investigation, it turns out that, for whatever reason (printing error, most likely, Ella decides), this particular copy virtually rewrote Dostoevsky’s work. When she returns it to the town library and voices her concerns, she begins to suspect that this isn’t the first time this has happened.
Things take an even stranger turn when Ella is invited to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of famous writers all handpicked by the group’s founder, the world renowned children’s author Laura White. Decades ago, White groomed these children and molded them into the novelists they are today and now Ella, the first new member in thirty years, is among their ranks. The night of her induction, however, a snowstorm tears through White’s mansion and she mysteriously vanishes into thin air.
With a massive manhunt underway, Ella launches her own investigation, digging deeper into this society in an attempt to uncover their secrets. Was there a tenth member before her? What happened to Laura White? What is this odd Game the members play?
The first thing I realized when reading was that The Rabbit Back Literature Society is not a quick read. Despite its relatively average length (350-ish pages), I struggled to read more than a chapter or two at a time. Normally I love my slow, leisurely-paced novels, but here, I found myself frustrated. I suppose it doesn’t help that the story was kind of boring. This wasn’t the Twin Peaks-esque novel I had anticipated, the Tartt-like thriller I had been promised. Even the shout-outs to the Brothers Grimm were called into question.
I honestly don’t know where this one went wrong. On the surface, it sounds amazing. Secret societies, murder, magical realism. YES. Inside its pages, however, there was a much different story that I honestly didn’t care for. Ella is constantly lamenting her “defective ovaries” (her complaints begin in the second paragraph of the novel and continue on through the rest of the book), but praising her “beautifully curving lips.” Neither body part had anything to do with the story and I really didn’t see why their consistent mentions were necessary.
Another downside to this book was The Game, a ritual played by the society members where they challenge one another and must answer honestly to whatever question is asked. …okay? Again, this truth-or-dare game brought nothing to the table apart from being an easy way for Ella to get answers to her questions. There were really odd rules for it too: the first time Ella is challenged she’s asleep in bed when one of the members climbs a tree outside her bedroom window. You can only be challenged after 10:00 PM or something odd like that (I honestly forget now). If a challenger refuses to answer a question or you suspect they might be lying, you can invoke a rule that allows you to physically harm them until you get the truth. The aftermath was equally odd: there were a few times Ella had to stay in bed for a week after playing. One member suffered a stroke! All they were doing was telling the truth. The entire thing was really bizarre and took up WAY too much of the story.
Although the epilogue made the book for me, getting there was a challenge. I’m not sure how much of it is due to the translator/translation or if the author is entirely to blame. It hurts to not love The Rabbit Back Literature Society as much as I had expected – particularly since it was blurbed by Emily Croy Barker, the author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (one of my top reads of 2013 – the wait for the sequel is KILLING me!) The one interesting part – the books rewriting their endings – didn’t receive nearly as much attention as I would have liked. There’s some throwaway line about a virus getting to the books, but there was never an actual explanation given. If this aspect of the story had been explored more (I kept thinking back to Jasper Fforde’s awesome Thursday Next series – the main character is a literary detective who can go into novels!) I’m positive I would have enjoyed the novel far more.
I kept bouncing around with my thoughts. Did I like this one? Some chapters I did, some chapters I forced my way through. Unfortunately, I’m really not sure just who to recommend this one to – the blurb gives one story, while the actual book gives another. When all is said and done, I supposed I wanted more from this book than I received (like answers perhaps – this is a novel that doesn’t feel the need to wrap up its mystery). I had much higher expectations for The Rabbit Back Literature Society and, sadly, it simply didn’t deliver.