There is a secret at the heart of the town of Rabbit Back, involving its most famous occupant, a world-renowned children's author, and a strange literary game played by the local Literary Society. As Ella, an aspiring author, makes unsettling discoveries about White's and the Society's past, we explore the nature of literature and truth.
Sometimes I wish novels came with an optional afterword that you could peek at only if you really wanted to know, maybe by wearing special glasses or holding the page up to a candle flame, what just happened there and why things turned out as they did. In my opinion, the practice of "leaving it up to the reader to decide" is an author's abdication of the agreement we implicitly make at the outset: I trust you as my guide and informant, and you show me a complete story, including all I need to know to make sense of it. Everything doesn't have to be spelled out, but I don't want whole puzzle pieces left missing.
Fiction in nontraditional formats doesn't promise this kind of resolution, but if an author invokes the conventions of traditional novel writing, I think he or she should live up to them. That's my opinion.
Here we have an intriguing, if lightweight, tale involving a very exclusive circle of writers, a set of peculiar customs and secret rituals, books with text that changes, the baffling disappearance of a celebrated author, and an old mystery that no one wants to talk about. The focal character's quest for a true history of events in the town of Rabbit Back, aided by a strange game in which players are forced to tell the truth as they know it, constitutes the main storyline.
When a novel is set in the ordinary everyday world we all live in, we have a pretty good idea of the limits of the possible. But when we're drawn into a world of the author's making, where our understanding of "the real" may be altered by another set of rules, we must rely on the internal logic and consistency of the story, maintained by the author's sense of fair play, to know what can and cannot occur. At the end of this story I was not satisfied that I did know what could have and must have happened. I wanted far more of an explanation than I got. I'd like a chance at that truth-telling game myself, just to have a clear sense of the payoff for my investment in the reading of this novel.
She consults the town librarian, Ingrid Katz, (who is also a famous author and member of the elite Rabbit Back Literature Society) who behaves rather suspiciously and says the book is probably a misprint or joke and puts it away. After stealing a stack of books Crime and Punishment is part of, she hurries home and looks through them, learning that, in the ‘new’ versions quite different things happen from the ones she’d read. (Meursault is rescued by Joseph K for one.) But that’s only the beginning of the mysteries about to be laid at Ella Amanda Milana’s feet.
An aspiring author, and long-time devotee of both the town’s most famous resident, world-renown children’s author Laura White, as well as the carefully chosen nine writers White began nurturing three decades before known as The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Ella is beside herself when she is invited to become the tenth, and final, member.
Then there is a tragedy, as will happen, which reveals a decades-long mystery, as will also happen. Ella sets her mind on solving it and is quickly introduced to something called The Game, which sounds like great fun but is something much more sinister. It’s useful for her mystery-solving purposes but she’s going to have to sacrifice a great deal of herself.
And off down the proverbial rabbit hole they all go.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen is about books and writing and memory. And the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and what happens when doing so is no longer an option–when we’re forced to let go of words and allow pure emotion to take over or risk losing the thing that means the most to us.
Within the first two pages this book was clearly barreling right up my street and with every page it came closer like that boulder in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With that sort of connection to a piece of writing the risk of the pay off not, well, paying off, looms large. I am notoriously hard on endings, but in this case I actually clapped my hands on the last page. I don’t know if a book ending has ever provoked that response before, but if so I don’t remember.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society will speak to readers who enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tartt or Ghost Story by Peter Straub. All three books are about insular intellectual societies with something dark at their hearts. All also have scenes of frigid beauty–snow and ice are nearly their own characters in both Rabbit Back and Ghost Story.
There’s also a bit of Haruki Murakami about the thing. Just enough to keep appearing at the edges of the reader’s mind after putting down the book. The book jumping–books altering their plots–put me in mind of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. Something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on also reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, as well. At any rate, if you enjoy any of those books, give this one a go.
This one is definitely going on my best of 2015 list. We’re hardly a fortnight into the year, but I loved everything about it. The writing was top rate (it was translated by Lola M. Rogers) and it’s the sort of book that lingers in the mind.
I recommend this one for those who like a little magic and mystery with their literary fiction. 5/5
[I received a free copy of this in exchange for an honest review but I’ll be pressing copies on several people quite voluntarily.]
The list of unanswered questions (only mild spoilers here): [spoiler]
* What happened to Laura White?
* What was the mysterious snow that took Laura White away?
* Why was Ella's father reciting poetry? There are all sorts of hints that this supposedly totally non-literary man had a literary past, but these hints never go anywhere.
* Why do dogs congregate in Winter's garden? The end sort of has some hints about this, but the question is never answered.
* What is the phantom that Winter keeps seeing?
* What is the origin of the book virus?
I was hoping for some grand event at the end that would answer all of these question, but it just didn't happen. This could have been a really fantastic story, but the ending didn't bring it all together.
I listened to the audiobook. The narrator was very good, but sometimes I questioned her choice of accents for the characters (she used a lot of regional British accents, which I thought sometimes misrepresented the characters.)
The Society has always had nine members until now. Although Ella has only authored a short story, she has been invited by Laura White to join. But on the night of her induction into the group, White vanishes from the party. Then Ella learns about The Game in which members challenge each other to answer very personal questions about themselves and The Group. Soon, Ella begins to use The Game to uncover the story behind White’s disappearance as well as the truth about a brilliant child, the original tenth member who the public has never heard of and who died under mysterious circumstances.
To say that The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen is an odd story would be a gross understatement. I have read reviews comparing this book to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and, to be honest, I wish I’d thought of that on my own because it is definitely an apt comparison. Strange things happen; they may or may not be resolved; and they may or may not disappear from the tale. There is the question of the books; the strange something that may be lurking in a back garden that attracts all of the town’s dogs; the weird snowstorm in White’s house as well as her disappearance; and, of course, the original tenth member. This is not a murder mystery, a horror tale, or even a simple fantasy. The characters never seem horrified, shocked, or even surprised by all of these strange occurrences. Nothing is what it seems here… or maybe it is – there are no easy answers, no simple solutions or, in some cases, no solutions at all. The reader may be left scratching their head at the end wondering what the hell just happened and spend a great deal of time afterwards trying to piece together what it all means.
All of this is not to say that The Rabbit Back Literature Society is not worth the read – it definitely is and I would recommend it highly to those who don’t mind not being handed all the answers or not having everything wrapped up in a bright shiny bow at the end. But, if you do decide to read it, don’t be surprised if, at the end, you have a sudden craving for cherry pie or whatever the Finnish equivalent might be.
I have had the e-galley for a while and it lingered on my list of to-reads through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons. Looking for something whimsical to amuse myself with as I detoxed from the holiday sugar highs, I started reading Rabbit Back.
Meet Ella Amanda Milana shortly after she has returned to her childhood home in Rabbit Back.
Ella's life seemed to have flowing along beautifully according to plan. She was engaged to marry and hoped for a future family. That all changed when she learned she had defective ovaries and her engagement was broken off. Despite being overly qualified, having completed an advance degree in literature and work in the publishing world, she accepts a temporary teaching position in the local high school while she tries to straighten out her life.
Ella Amanda Milana's life in Rabbit Back immediately had me wondering if she had fallen into Alice's rabbit hole and taken a left turn from Wonderland into Rabbit Back. The story quickly reveals that Ella has distinctively beautiful lips and a pair of defective ovaries. This revelation shows promise of more "adult" mystical mayhem to follow. Rabbit Back is a bit more adult oriented than Wonderland.
I had a difficult time getting into the story at first but something wouldn't let me put it down.
World famous children's author, Laura White has written a series of Creatureville books that has impacted the entire community. The local diner, Mother Snow's Book Café, is named after one of her characters. Every corner of town, from private gardens to city parks, is filled with statuary of mythological creatures. Ms. White has ties to the local school and begins to mentor a group of hand-selected promising young authors known as the Rabbit Back Literature Society. The Society will never have more than ten members. Much like the Dead Poets Society and the Ya-Ya Sisterhood there are sacrosanct rules and rituals.
For 30 years, there has been only nine members; the tenth member has never been designated by Ms. White. The Members of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, with Ms White's continued oversight, publish their own works and several become international celebrities.
As a little more history about Rabbit Back, it has always had its mysteries. Enough mysteries that local residents concerned with the odd goings-on and mental irregularities they experience in their homes can hire the Rabbit Back Mythological Heritage Society to do a mythological mapping. "The service included an explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property".
Ella submits a story to the local paper that issues a literary supplement and Ms. White likes what she sees in Ella's story. Suddenly the town is abuzz. Ms. White has named Ella as the tenth and final member of the Rabbit Back Literature Society!
The story from here twists and turns. The neighborhood dogs go nuts and run in packs. Ella is introduced to the inner secrets of the Society and the storyline gets fuzzier and fuzzier. What is real and what is not.
There are some very thought provoking questions crawling through the story. And not all the questions raised have answers.
A good read for a lazy day.
Like a fairy tale detective story where the last few pages, when the detective explains it all, are missing. A book that is satisfying on its own (IMO) but practically *requires* you to get someone else to read it so you can animatedly discuss your theories on what exactly was going on with this character or that. Also props to the author for writing an absolutely believable female protagonist.