Set in an alternative historical present, in a "eusistocracy"--An extreme welfare state -- that holds public health and social stability above all else, it follows a young woman whose growing addiction to illegal chili peppers leads her on an adventure into a world where love, sex, and free will are all controlled by the state.
Women have no rights - they are the property of their husbands after they are married; their only goal in life is to marry and bring correct children in the world.
At the same time, the government is forbidding substances and anything that may make people think. Or feel. Including hot peppers. And that is what a cult is started around - finding the hottest pepper that can be bred.
It is a frustrating novel - I loved the depiction of the society and the subtle (and not so subtle) changes that made the society so different from ours. It is scary and relevant and so well done. And at the same time, there is the story of the cult and the chase of the hot pepper. And that one simply did not work for me -- and the end of the novel ties that story line. I am not a huge fan of weird stories - I prefer the straight SF. And Sinisalo had always been on the fringes - weird is her thing. But I am still happy that I read the novel - her anti-utopian society is one of the best depicted ones I had read lately.
This alternate-history gives us a Handmaid's Tale/Brave New World-type mirror of modern-day Finland; one where an exceedingly restrictive social plan has been instituted, and women have been relegated to second-class citizens. The government calls this 'new' Finland a 'eusistocracy, ' claiming that it values the happiness and well-being of its citizens above all else. Eugenics is being used to breed 'proper' citizens; those who don't meet certain standards are sterilized. The decadence and decay of more-liberal countries is frequently emphasized in propaganda.
Part of that foreign decay is the production of food containing that dangerous and addictive drug, capsaicin. All spicy foods are banned, and there's an underground drug trade in chili peppers.
Our main character, Vanna, has 'passed' as an eloi femiwoman her whole life, due to her attractive looks. However, she knows she's really a morlock, and that if she shows curiosity, initiative or other 'unfeminine' traits, she'll be doomed to a life of hard labor. Her life has been devoted to caring for her twin sister, who's always been a model of eloi domestic passivity. The desire to provide for her helpless sister led her to drug dealing. But now, her twin is missing, presumed dead, Vanna suspects her brother-in-law of murder, and in her grief she has turned to dipping into her own stock - she's become a chili pepper addict.
Vanna wants to escape repressive Finland with her dealer/partner Jare - but she also wants to find - or find justice for - her sister.
The tone of the book is a bit odd, teetering between silly satire and earnest social critique. I think it would've been more successful if it moved more wholeheartedly toward the satire end of things, partly because the 'science' here really doesn't hold up, and partly because the social elements that are critiqued here have been critiqued before, oh so many times. The mix reminded me quite a lot of Atwood's recent 'The Heart Goes Last' - I'd highly recommend this book to fans of that one.
Many thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.