Source: Review copy
Publication: Available now in e-book and 17 October in paperback
A man with dark thoughts on his mind is racing along the remote snowy roads of Hurmevaara in Finland, when there is flash in the sky and something crashes into the car. That something turns about to be a highly valuable meteorite. With euro signs lighting up the eyes of the locals, the unexpected treasure is temporarily placed in a neighbourhood museum, under the watchful eye of a priest named Joel.
But Joel has a lot more on his mind than simply protecting the riches that have apparently rained down from heaven. His wife has just revealed that she is pregnant. Unfortunately Joel has strong reason to think the baby isn’t his. As Joel tries to fend off repeated and bungled attempts to steal the meteorite, he must also come to terms with his own situation, and discover who the father of the baby really is.
Transporting the reader to the culture, landscape and mores of northern Finland Little Siberia is both a crime novel and a hilarious, blacker-than-black comedy about faith and disbelief, love and death, and what to do when bolts from the blue – both literal and figurative – turn your life upside down.
If a meteorite falls in the forest and no-one is around, does it matter?
Little Siberia is Antti Tuomainen in a deep and darkly humorous frame of mind. Marrying his trademark Hiassen-like humour with a philosophical bent, Tuomainen’s protagonist is Joel Huhta , a priest living in the remote village of Hurmevaara in Finland, a place which one of his characters christens ‘Little Siberia’.
Joel may be a priest, but his faith in the world around him is wavering, just at the point when he ought to be filled with joy. For Joel, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, has a secret that he has not divulged to anyone, not least his wife Krista, whom he loves deeply. And now his wife has informed him that they are expecting a baby.
Joel does not believe that he has fathered this child and he needs to know with whom his wife has been unfaithful, so he sets out to find out who has done this terrible thing to him. This being a small village, the number of suspects is limited.
In the midst of trees, snow and little else, Joel is now looking at his flock with fresh eyes, calculating which of them might have impregnated his wife.
Tuomainen gives us a bleak, harsh landscape that is claustrophobic and with a climate that would freeze even the warmest of monkey appendages. Into this village he then brings a cataclysmic event. A meteorite crashes straight into the car of the town drunk, a once famous rally driver who lost everything when he crashed and killed his navigator partner. Now he is a man driving madly to his destruction, halted only by this extraordinary event. Suddenly, everything changes. The whole town becomes convinced that this meteorite is worth a fortune – 1m euros is the generally agreed sum.
The meteorite is taken to the local museum, awaiting transport to the nearest town, from where it will travel abroad for scientific analysis. Joel and some of the villagers undertake to keep watch over it. But there are plenty in the village, and further afield, who see this as their opportunity to make a killing, both figuratively and, as it turns out, literally.
Joel takes the first watch and it’s not long before the museum is broken into and two assailants try to steal the meteorite. But Joel is not in the mood to let this happen. Using his military skills, he tracks them through the woods where he finds one of the miscreants blown to pieces in an explosion. Saying nothing, Joel determines to become the sole guardian of the meteorite, not knowing whether his fellow volunteers may have been in on the theft plot and knowing there will be further attempts to come.
So now Joel is looking askance at each villager and stranger for two reasons. Are they a thief, plotting to violently steal the meteorite and did they father Krista’s child? There are two very dodgy looking Russians in town who are certainly prime suspects for something, if not everything.
Then there’s Karoliina, the town’s femme fatale. Joel’s been following his nose, and it has led him to the Golden Moon Night Club, a place where happy hour lasts for 6 hours, and Karoliina presides over the bar like Frenchie in Destry rides again, only with more makeup and a nasty bruise.
I have to say the villains in this novel are superb. All the characters are idiosyncratic and unpredictable and the level of violence in the town only accelerates as Joel tries to quell his growing unease at how he can continue to counsel his parishioners at the same time as he is suspecting them of keeping terrible secrets and committing despicable acts.
Joel’s faith is severely tested when it becomes clear that Krista has become the central fulcrum of the action. Joel’s doubts coalesce around a defining action by the would-be thieves and Joel realises once and for all what really matters to him.
It’s really hard to describe the impact of this book. It is without doubt, dark and funny and it has some startlingly violent moments and a brilliant, sparkling finish. But it is also rather a thoughtful and questioning book about the nature of faith, the value of secrets and the importance of love.
Verdict: A brilliantly funny, darkly comic and philosophical and ultimately tender book about faith, belief and what’s truly important. I loved it. This is Tuomainen at his best.
Antti Tuomainen was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author. The critically acclaimed My Brother’s Keeper was published two years later. In 2011, Tuomainen’s third novel, The Healer, was awarded the Clue Award for ‘Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011’ and was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award. Two years later, in 2013, the Finnish press crowned Tuomainen the ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as My Heart was published. With a piercing and evocative style, Tuomainen was one of the first to challenge the Scandinavian crime genre formula, and his poignant, dark and hilarious The Man Who Died became an international bestseller, shortlisting for the Petrona and Last Laugh Awards. The recently published Palm Beach, Finland has been a massive critical success, with Marcel Berlins of The Times calling him ‘the funniest writer in Europe’, and making it one of his books of the year.