Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sari Peltoniemi: Kummat

From: Borrowed from my friend Mike Pohjola
When: Over a year ago
Verdict: Not half bad!
Fate: Returned with thanks

This novel is in Finnish.

As my friend Mike was finishing his well-received first novel, which for all its orginality is technically fantasy and technically for the YA market, I asked him whether he actually reads any YA lit himself. He immediately game me two answers, the one being along the lines of "Nuh" and the other along the lines of "Sure", and handed me this book, written by a friend of his. I took this as "not so much, but here's a recent example", and borrowed it, very curious about what YA authors in my neck of the woods are up to these days.

Kummat – "the strange ones" – are a group of high school kids who suddenly grow tails. They become a bit more animal in other ways as well, the many females turning into a kind of harem for the one, dominant male (who is endowed with looks, humour, the power of making them feel special, and a sexuality which is not as it turns out limited to females, with or without tails).

The whole thing is a bit uncomfortable for everyone involved, and for lack of anything better to do the kids decide to become erotic dancers at seedy nightclubs in their dreary Finnish town. While this may seem a bit out of left field when I write it down like this, it makes a bit more sense in the novel, which will almost certainly never be translated for the American market.

The main body of the narrative is interspersed with short narrative sequences offering potential and conflicting explanations for the tails (they are caused by aliens; hey are a curse; they are an evolutionary remnant; they are familiar from folklore). None of these explanations is given more credence than any of the others, and their status relative to the main narrative is not clarified apart from some suggestion that the kids research their predicament on the internet and that the sequences could perhaps be dreams or fantasies. (A similarly unresolved relation between different textual layers in a novel occurs in Mike's debut, for which I assume this may have been an inspiration).

Peltonemi writes convincingly about identity and peer pressure, and the novel opens up for discussions about gender, difference and status without preaching about any of these things. Thrown together with a random sample of classmates normally belonging to different cliques, the main character comes face to face with her own prejudices, and so of course must the reader, which is interesting when our prejudices are the same (and less so when they are not).

I sometimes find speculative fiction of this basically realist type difficult to read because I am not certain what importance to give different or conflicting generic signals. Reading Kummat, I enjoyed it vaguely but did not know what to make of it – a "head or tail" pun is called for but I can't think of one – and it is only upon reflection that I find it quite intelligent. The imagery that has stayed with me now feels appealing; on reading I found some of the milieus realistically but perhaps unecessarily depressing.

Ultimately the girls' cruise ship trip to Sweden, a Finnish coming-of-age ritual documented too rarely in fiction of any genre, brings home the point that the novel is not about tails specifically - what sets them apart and unites them could be anything. While this begs the followup "then why tails", the conceit works. And Peltoniemi's treatment of sexuality in high school-students is certainly more complex and thought-provoking than, for instance, Stephanie Meyer's.

Buy Kummat at Suurikuu.

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