Kati Hiekkapelto appeared on a couple of panels at ‘Crimefest’ last month, talking about The Hummingbird. I have never read a novel set in Finland so the setting caught my attention, as did the social themes of immigration and forced marriage which are linked to the investigations. I am really enjoying this burgeoning crime sub-genre of ‘social realism’, in which I include British authors such as Eva Dolan, Rob Wilson and Stav Sherez. Hiekkapelto looks set to be joining their ranks with her debut novel, now translated into English.
The main character, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. She has lived in Finland since she was a child and has made an effort to settle. She speaks perfect Finnish and numerous other languages. In contrast, her brother never learnt Finnish and struggles to find work, and her mother returned ‘home’ as soon as she could. With an army career behind her, and now starting a police one, Anna is an interesting and complex character. Hiekkapelto drip feeds some of her family and personal backstory throughout the novel, and there is plenty here to get the teeth into. I loved the way that Anna stands up to people. Her racist, sexist, bullying colleague, Esko, gets put in his place and I enjoyed seeing their working relationship evolve. I also liked how proud she is of her nationality. For example, she introduces herself as ‘Fekete Anna’, knowing that the surname-first format will reveal that she isn’t a Finn.
The Hummingbird takes the form of a police procedural. On the first day of her new job in the Violent Crimes Unit, Anna is thrown into the deep end when a female jogger is murdered, and a report is received of a Kurdish girl who may be in danger. When more joggers are killed, and the crimes appear to be linked to an Aztec god (where the Hummingbird comes in), things get intense. Anna seems to identify with the cases, gets over-involved and suffers insomnia as a result. Her own jogging regime is dropped in favour of cigarettes and beer. She becomes obsessed with the Kurdish girl, and is convinced that she is being forced into a marriage. It is an interesting examination of prejudice and stereotypes and how difficult it can be to distinguish these from reality.
I was interested to see how Hiekkapelto would cover her themes. Immigration and forced marriage are thorny issues and, because they can be controversial and emotive, it is easy to avoid their discussion. I thought that making the themes central to the story worked extremely well and crime fiction is a perfect genre for doing this. Having a detective who is also an immigrant on the team is a good strategy as the reader can see things from her perspective. Her viewpoint, in turn, is informed by having experienced life in former Yugoslavia, having moved to another country, and learnt a new language and different customs. I was shocked by some of the reactions of Anna’s colleagues to her ethnicity, and by some of the vocabulary they use (although I am aware that I read the book in translation). And I found it refreshing: in my opinion it is so important that literature shocks and horrifies us all out of complacency and ignorance and inertia, and encourages us to challenge our preconceptions and reflect on our behaviour. It might be easy to wonder if the ‘immigrant experience’ is exaggerated in the book. As the author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, I suspect it’s factually based. Chapters are also written from the point of view of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl) which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation.
To my mind, the Hummingbird is also about identity and belonging. These are two of my favourite themes because they’re so psychologically complex. Through all the characters in the book the reader can reflect on how identity is constructed and what contributes to it. Anna is a wonderful example of someone whose cultural identity is both stable and malleable. Despite her respectable profession and linguistic competences, at times she feels lost and anxious but underneath – or mixed in with – her vulnerabilities she is strong and determined. The same with belonging: what determines our sense of belonging? Why do some people feel they ‘belong’ more than others? And belong to what?
Something else which appeals to me about Nordic novels is the role that landscape and the weather play. As a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy, interminable descriptions of meadows and harvests and towns had me skipping pages. In The Hummingbird Hiekkapelto integrates the landscape, weather and nature into the story and this works better for me: it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent. I liked the fact that the investigation spans August to November, and we are shown the changing seasons. It gives the plot a slower pace but also enables, I found, greater reflection. I didn’t anticipate the ending, and the twists worked well for me. The final twist made me smile.
If I have one criticism of the book, it is that I found the translation a bit strange in places, and, initially, didn’t see the point of the untranslated Hungarian phrases and words, but neither issue impaired my enjoyment of the book. The author has since told me that these phrases were deliberately left untranslated to let the reader experience what it is like not to be able to understand. When she told me this, it made sense. Furthermore, this device was effective: I was a bit irritated by not understanding them in case I had missed an important detail. (The meaning of some could be inferred from the context)
I have no doubt that Hiekkapelto’s novels will go from strength to strength. She strikes me as an author with a lot to say about contemporary issues in society, from an informed viewpoint, and a writer with a wonderful imagination and use of language.
Vicky Newham © 2015