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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town

by
Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Secret Passages in a Hillside Town



Title: Secret Passages in a Hillside Town
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 404 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: Secret Passages in a Hillside Town - US
Secret Passages in a Hillside Town - UK
Secret Passages in a Hillside Town - Canada
  • Finnish title: Harjukaupungin Salakäytävät
  • Translated by Lola Rogers

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Our Assessment:

B : lots of promise, from plot to approach, but packs too much in, on too many levels, and doesn't do enough with a lot of it

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 23/11/2017 Stepahnie Cross
World Lit. Today . Winter/2019 Lanie Tankard


  Review Consensus:

  • "Overlong and deeply weird." - Stepahnie Cross, Daily Mail

  • "Crawl far enough into the warren maze of Jääskeläinen’s plot and uncover a parody of data analytics, Facebook, cinema, and book publishing echoing the best of William Gibson -- with a touch of Anaïs Nin. Jääskeläinen embeds social commentary and a soupçon of gothic horror. Metaphor abounds" - Lanie Tankard, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is set in the Finnish city of Jyväskylässä and centers around Olli Suominen. Jyväskylässä is one of the half-dozen largest cities in Finland, with a population of over 100,000; still, here it is presented as a backwater town -- a place that: "nurtured dullness". Olli works for Book Tower Publishing, who publish: "mostly children's books but also some popular non-fiction"; he's also on the parish council.
       Olli is married to Aino, a teacher, and they have a young son, Lauri, but Olli's mind and heart don't really seem to be in the relationship; it's become fairly routine, with husband and wife each focused on their own only partially overlapping lives. They seem to get along, but are hardly ideally matched:

She didn't really know his taste in books, didn't really know literature in general. For a teacher, she was surprisingly indifferent to the arts, or to anything cultural. She preferred kitsch of all sorts, and carried around a Hello Kitty pencil box without the slightest irony.
       Olli seems to have his head a bit in the clouds in any case -- and is presented as such already in the novel's opening paragraph, described as going through life that fall: "buying umbrellas and forgetting them all around Jyväskylässä. He also accidentally joined a film club". Typically, he doesn't even seem to think of whether his wife would want to go to the movie screenings with him. And while he isn't really that much of a cinephile, he drifts towards these classical movies and comes to spend a fair amount of his free time in these other-worlds of film. (Characters also repeatedly quote from classic films in responding to each other -- a kind of private language of shared experience, even as the words and thoughts are those of others: this is, among other things, very much a novel about being on (and off) script.)
       Olli also joins Facebook -- presented as a good way to maintain professional contacts ... -- and gets a friend request from someone he can't quite place, named Greta; he adds her to his friends. And for their anniversary Aino gives him a book that actually is right up his alley, A Guide to the Cinematic Life, by one Greta Kara. It is, of course, the same Greta -- a person who was, as is revealed to the reader before Olli figures it out, "his first great love", but whom he hasn't seen for over thirty years. [By the way: in the original Finnish Greta's name is Kerttu Kara, but apparently they decided that was just too foreign-sounding .....]
       Olli and Greta connect on Facebook, and she even decides to sign up with Book Tower Publishing for her next book, the first in a series of Magical City Guides -- a guide to Jyväskylässä -- with Olli as the editor, a big professional coup for him, since Greta's first book has proven to be incredibly successful.
       Olli is also somewhat haunted by the past. He doesn't spend much time with his wife and son, but his mind and dreams do wander to his youth, and especially the summers he spent with the three Blomroos-siblings Anne, Leo, and Riku, and the boy named Karri: they had been the 'Tourula Five', and had, like Enid Blyton's Famous Five, uncovered some small local crimes in their time. Among his recollections and his dreams are also the 'secret passages' they visited back then, underground passages that Karri had a nose for, and that had remarkable properties:
     They quickly realized that the secret passages affect your thoughts, and especially your memory. Inside the tunnels things are distorted; they seem different from how they are above the ground. And time progresses differently, too; sometimes it slows down, sometimes it speeds up, and sometimes it stops altogether. Afterwards they remember different things, or they remember the same things but each in a different way. Some things they can't remember at all. Often after they have come back to the surface, everything is cloaked in obscurity and all that's left is the feeling of bewilderment that the passages give a person.
       The expeditions have something of the feel of a dive into the subconscious -- as do Olli's present-day recollections and dreams. And present-day circumstances -- the reäppearance of Greta in his life; the Blomrooss following him on Facebook (something that makes him quite uncomfortable) -- bring a great deal of the past bubbling confusingly up.
       Just how preöccupied Olli is with his own thoughts, in his own little world, becomes evident when his wife disappears -- and mentions that his son has already been kidnapped two weeks earlier, which an oblivious Olli hadn't even noticed. The Blomroos-trio are responsible and, via Facebook, they instruct him as to what he has to do to ensure their safe return: essentially, he must woo Greta, and make her happy. Given that she has never forgotten her first love, this isn't too big an ask. (Aino and Lauri are apparently well taken care of, getting to see the world; Olli receives some communications from his wife over this long period of their absence, but basically they're just conveniently shunted off-stage for most of the duration.)
       It all, of course, has to do with what happened back in their youth. Greta appeared on the scene after Karri disappeared; Olli and she fell in love -- but the Blomroos kids didn't like her. Something bad happened, and the Blomroos three are apparently now trying to make up for what they did to Greta.
       It takes a while before the pieces and memories fall in place, but yes, the Blomrooss have a lot to answer for (and rather an odd, over-elaborate plan for doing so). Hapless Olli finds himself in the middle of it, and while he feels an obligation to go along with things to get his family back it's not entirely a hardship: his feeling for his wife aren't that deep, and he doesn't mind getting closer to Greta again.
       Jääskeläinen layers a lot on here, including Greta's cinematic philosophy -- from her first, bestselling book -- and part of the idea of the novel is of life as a film, following a script. Not that Olli recognizes that quickly: it clearly comes as a bit of an eye-opener to him when he's told, late in the day:
You must understand now why everything has to happen according to the script.
       The secret passages are, unsurprisingly, a (Freudian) key, too -- with early on Olli suggesting to Greta that she perhaps leave those out of her Magical City Guide (which clearly disappoints her, since she understands their significance and also reveals that Olli is still a bit oblivious); they, of course, prove unavoidable.
       As memories from the past resurface, including of the increasing tension between the Blomroos-three and Olli during those teenage summers, we eventually learn just what happened. Greta also fills in the blanks of her life since that time. It is a lot to digest -- so much so, in its resolution, that Jääskeläinen then offers not one but two endings. In the original Finnish editions, readers were presented with one and then a link to an alternative ending; in the translation, the two are offered one after the other. It's an interesting choice -- made somewhat more palatable by Jääskeläinen not insisting in having it both ways, as it were, i.e. trying to satisfy everyone.
       Relying so much on dreams and (at first-)fuzzy memory, Secret Passages in a Hillside Town does float a bit loosely for many stretches, the balance of the fantastical and the all-too-real proving a difficult one to strike. The novel's twists are creative -- if also difficult to stomach, as far as the main one goes -- but with the narrative focus almost entirely on Olli, in large part feels almost like color; Greta quickly recounts life after the incident from way back when -- a richly imagined set of episodes that readers probably would have preferred to hear more about (rather than yet another of Olli's dreams, for example).
       Jääskeläinen does pack an awful lot in, too, from the constant stream of cinematic mentions and allusions to Greta's philosophies -- down to her idea of 'M-particles'. With Olli's wife and child mostly far off-scene, and the present-day Blomroos-trio long only active via Facebook, they come to feel oddly incidental, and it's a bit hard to believe that Olli would simply drift along as he does without more engagement, at least with the Blomrooss. It doesn't help that readers are not given any reason to really care about the fate of the mother and child off in the distance, either.
       If the odd story doesn't really unfold as well as well as it might -- with the whole kidnapping part in particular truly underwhelming -- Jääskeläinen still manages to hold the readers interest with the more simple and everyday. Olli's umbrella-losing (and buying) habit might be a bit silly, but Jääskeläinen excels at these seemingly small, everyday scenes and episodes; in this respect, it is welcome that Olli is so much at the heart of the novel, as we can follow his somewhat hapless rambling and roaming. Too many parts of the novel are rather unrealistic -- not so much the more fantastical elements, such as the secret passages, which one can accept, but those that are meant to be more realistic, such as Olli's work at the publishing house, which he neglects to surely an impossible degree once his work is inconvenient for the narrative -- and this, like the way the present-day Blomrooss act almost entirely out of sight, can get somewhat annoying, especially given the contrast to the more richly evoked summer-scenes of yesteryear.
       It makes for a novel that isn't entirely satisfying or successful, leaving the feeling that it would have had to be pared down -- or plumped up -- to really be effective. There is quite a bit that's solid and of interest here, and much that is well done -- including the surprise twist regarding Greta, which Jääskeläinen holds back quite well for much of the novel --, it just doesn't quite work in this form as a whole (as one suspects Jääskeläinen himself realized, in tacking on a second, alternative ending).

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2020

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Links:

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town: Reviews: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: Other books by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish author Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen was born in 1966.

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© 2020 the complete review

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