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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Core of the Sun

Johanna Sinisalo

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

To purchase The Core of the Sun

Title: The Core of the Sun
Author: Johanna Sinisalo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: The Core of the Sun - US
The Core of the Sun - UK
The Core of the Sun - Canada
Finnisches Feuer - Deutschland
  • Finnish title: Auringon ydin
  • Translated by Lola Rogers

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Our Assessment:

B : creative dystopian take

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Helsingin Sanomat . 15/10/2013 Juhani Karila
Publishers Weekly . 12/10/2015 .
The Washington Post . 22/12/2015 Nancy Hightower
Die Welt . 11/10/2014 Margarete Stokowski

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nyt Sinisalo ei heristä sormea, vaan puristaa kätensä nyrkkiin. Hänen kirjallisessa iskussaan lukijan vatsaan on taitoa ja voimaa." - Juhani Karila, Helsingin Sanomat

  • "Sinisalo is at her best when describing the action; she makes you feel the heat of those chilies, but relies a bit too much on letters from Vanna to her sister for exposition. Still, this is an unusual and fun story with a strong dose of social commentary." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Told through letters, diary entries, dictionary definitions and historical documents, the novel builds a fascinating story centered on gender politics." - Nancy Hightower, The Washington Post

  • "Finnisches Feuer ist kein Buch, das durch sprachliche Besonderheiten glänzt, sondern eher durch Intelligenz und Witz. (...) Vor allem aber ist Finnisches Feuer eine wunderbare, sarkastische Kritik sexistischer Verhaltensweisen. Sinisalo macht die Regeln, nach denen Diskriminierung funktioniert, sichtbar, indem sie sie in staatliche Gesetze umschreibt – und damit lächerlich macht. (...) (E)ine scharfe politische Kritik." - Margarete Stokowski, Die Welt

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:

       Much of The Core of the Sun is set in present-day (well, October 2016 through August 2017) Finland, but it's not quite the Finland we're all familiar with but rather a dystopian alter-Finland that went off the rails decades ago, an isolated corner of Europe that walled itself off from the "decadent democracies" of the rest of the continent -- think Communist Albania, or North Korea, Scandinavian-style. This Finland calls itself an "eusistocracy", with the highest governmental body the Health Authority. Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs have long and effectively been banned, while the lessons from Soviet geneticist Dimitri Belyayev's fox-breeding experiments (domesticating them -- a process that also changed their physical appearance) has long been applied to the nation's women, making for an ultra-domesticated 'femiwoman' (popularly known as 'eloi'), ditzy, dumbed-down creatures whose only ambition is to marry, serve their husbands, and procreate. (The few women who don't meet the standards are 'morlocks' (like 'eloi', a designation borrowed from H.G.Wells) -- sterilized and used as worker-drones.)
       The Core of the Sun centers on two sisters, Vera and Mira. Orphaned as toddlers in Spain, they are delivered to Finland, to their only distant relative, their grandmother, Aulikki, at her remote property, Neulapää. Their names are changed -- to Vanna and Manna -- and they undergo the obligatory test to have their final gender specified. Manna is obviously an eloi, but her sister clearly isn't -- but, prodded by Aulikki, she does enough to fool the testers and pass as one as well, avoiding the fate of becoming an outcast. Able to homeschool the girls in the remote setting, Aulikki gives the clever and curious Vanna a proper education -- but makes sure there's no evidence of her learning whenever the authorities come to check up: eloi girls need -- indeed should -- only know how to serve their husbands.
       The novel is presented in the form of short chapters from the present-day, and includes a variety of documentary excerpts -- article and book excerpts; eloi homework-essays; transcripts; legal and other definitions -- as well as accounts by Vanna, both of her present-day, as well as letters to her sister, which help fill in some of the background events. Manna is apparently dead, and Vanna misses her terribly. There are also recollections and accounts by Jare, who spent a summer working on Aulikki's farm.
       True eloi Manna dreamt only of getting a man, and unfortunately came to perceive Vanna as a rival -- first with Jare -- and wound up rushing headlong into marriage. Fake eloi Vanna went through many of the motions -- including going to eloi college, to train to be a good and devoted wife -- but never fell for all this nonsense -- but was also unable to save Manna from herself. Vanna and Jare continued to have a relationship, however -- a useful cover for both, allowing Vanna to inhabit the traditional role of eloi wanting nothing more than a mate, and Jare cover as he works towards getting enough money to flee the country.
       While alcohol and similar intoxicants have long been essentially unavailable in this Finland, there is one drug that the authorities have only begun to crack down on: chili peppers, the spicier the better. Jare deals in chilis -- it's how he wants to raise the money to bribe his way abroad -- while Vanna is both his associate and, now, also an addict.
       This all makes for quite a mix of material and suspense. There's the near-traditional drug-pusher novel-story (albeit with a very untraditional drug), spiced up with the additional always lurking danger that Vanna's true feminine (decidedly un-eloi) identity might be discovered, as well as the mystery of what happened to Manna (and the increasingly imminent threat from Manna's husband, Harri Nissilä: "When they release him he'll do whatever he can to even the score"). The dystopian setting then provides another layer, as Sinisalo spins out this bizarro-world of women's second-class citizenship made national policy in this dulled-down country.
       The Core of the Sun is reasonably effective feminist critique and satire -- the codification of the outrageous policy making its absurdity even more obviously striking. A difficulty, of course, is that the premise renders so many of the characters -- all the eloi, from Manna to all of Vanna's fellow students -- very flat: society (and breeding) turned them into insipid creatures, but that doesn't make them any more compelling. Vanna at least is a strong female character -- but it's difficult not to see her drug addiction as a different kind of weakness (though admittedly it makes it even clearer how she stands out with her heightened perceptions in this society of otherwise so dulled-down senses). (It is wise old woman Aulikki who is the most sensible and well-rounded of the characters.)
       Vanna's -- and, to a lesser extent, Jare's -- accounts are largely from the periphery, so it's difficult to get much sense of many of the consequences of the prevailing system Sinisalo imagines. (We never, for example, learn anything about Jare's official job and workplace-environment.) Not that the fundamentals aren't outrageous enough -- but that's quickly a given, and it's a shame Sinisalo doesn't offer more than just easy and obvious examples with her various documentary excerpts. Meanwhile, there are few scenes truly from within the functioning (in its own, obviously peculiar way) part of this society -- as Vanna, for example, must always inhabit a role that is fake, coloring her perceptions. In many respects the novel and its premises are interchangeable with familiar totalitarian examples -- it could as easily, changing only some of the fundamentals, be about Jews in Nazi Germany or dissidents in the Soviet Union (etc.). (That may be part of Sinisalo's point, but even so she could have done more with it.)
       Sinisalo's presentation -- layers of narrative dominated by Vanna's, supplemented by Jare's, and then livened up by interspersing all sorts of sometimes shocking, sometimes amusing odds and ends -- is effective and makes for a lively, consistently engaging read. There's a lot of story to The Core of the Sun too, from Vanna and Manna's backstory to Vanna and Jare's involvement with a cult involved in a different kind of breeding-experiment (chilis, rather than women), and several different sources of suspense, too; for better and worse, however, it all remains rather light.
       The Core of the Sun does succeed, emotionally resonant, at its most personal -- the sister-story -- but striking though much else is here, from Vanna's voice to the outrageous gender-breeding-premise, it too rarely approaches the depths its ambitions would seem (at least in a few more places) to demand.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 December 2015

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The Core of the Sun: Reviews: Johanna Sinisalo: Other books by Johanna Sinisalo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo was born in 1958.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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