Secret Passages in a Hillside Town

Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen

Pushkin, £9.99

FINNISH author Jaaskelainen broke into the English-speaking market four years ago with his captivating dark fantasy The Rabbit Back Literature Society. Mixing together elements of thriller, fantasy and satire, its follow-up is just as strange and beguiling, luring its readers in with quirkiness and charm only to beckon them towards more sinister depths.

It concerns Olli Suominen, a Finnish publisher who leads a fairly unremarkable life. He works hard while, at home, his relationships with his wife and son could do with a bit more effort. He has a habit of losing umbrellas and once a week goes to a film club where he watches mundane life being transfigured into something moving and meaningful.

As a child, he used to go on summer holidays to where his grandparents lived, and fell in with some other kids. Inspired by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, they had adventures together, mostly concerning the exploration of hidden tunnels in the countryside. His old flame from those days, Greta, has since become an internationally successful author with her book A Guide to the Cinematic Life. The book has really captured people’s imaginations. Olli’s editor Maiju, for instance, says that Veronica Lake in The Blue Dahlia is a character she can use to get in touch with her “deep cinematic self”. Olli is determined that his publishing house will get the rights to her next book, and he contacts Greta through Facebook. Not only would securing a contract with her be a boost to his company, but Olli can’t resist the opportunity of getting back in touch with his old girlfriend.

What happens next is like nothing Olli could have anticipated. Greta returns to her old home town, intending to write a book about it, but events from the past prove to have a long reach and Olli finds to his horror that others have taken control of his life to write a story of their own. He can resist their demands or submit to them, but either way a price will have to be paid.

Highly compelling, Secret Passages in a Hillside Town derives much of its power from what is, literally and figuratively, going on under the surface. Much as Ollie’s dreams are reshuffling elements of the story to send him messages and warnings he can’t quite understand, the secret passages themselves are places of transformation and revelation, physical entrances, almost, to a dream state.

The heightened, aestheticised existence that comes from “cinematising” one’s life has its origins in that realm too. As it draws closer to depicting a fateful incident from Olli’s youth, the narrative depends increasingly on how we create identity through stories, and the sometimes painful necessity for doing so. And that stories, as well as identities, are fluid and pliable, and could have many different endings. Despite the darkness that encroaches as the novel nears its end, Jaaskelainen manages to maintain a sense of playfulness, against the odds. It is, after all, just a story. If not a dream.