Vicky Newham


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The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto – a review – special feature part 2

The Defenceless, published in e-book in the UK today (translated), is the second novel in Hiekkapelto’s series featuring Yugoslav Hungarian Senior Constable Anna Fakete, a new recruit to the Violent Crimes Unit in Northern Finland. It follows up the stunning debut novel, The Hummingbird.

When an old man, wearing pyjamas, is found dead on the road, Anna is asked to investigate because the person who has run him over is Hungarian and she cannot speak any Finnish. Anna is nervous about interviewing the girl, Gabriella, and wonders whether her lapsed Hungarian will be up to it. As soon as she starts to investigate the man’s flat she is quickly convinced that it isn’t a simple case of the man being run over and this is where things begin to get extremely sinister. Goings on in the apartment block bring Anna in contact with seedy drug dealers, ruthless street gangs from Sweden and Denmark, and an illegal immigrant from Pakistan called Sammy who is dodging deportation. All of these people are connected to this apartment building. I thought that this was a brilliant set-up for the novel and the plot is ingenious in this regard.

Anna’s colleague, the irascible Esko, is also investigating the case but from a slightly different angle. He uses a ‘snitch’ to gather information on who has set up the Black Cobras and the Hell’s Angels gangs in Finland. Battling health problems as a result of his smoking and drinking, and unhealthy lifestyle, Esko’s behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and offensive. In the last book I warmed to him half-way through. In this one I found him objectionable (although we learn some of the reasons why).

The novel is well paced and its numerous mysteries provide plenty of forward momentum and suspense. What I liked about the plot was that the mysteries were of varying types, and this made me want to read on as chapters shift between aspects of the plot. The mystery variety raises the interesting question of whether crime fiction needs to have murders, and, if not, what constitutes a satisfactory ‘crime’ from the reader’s point of view. Readers of The Defenceless won’t be disappointed: there is something for everyone here.

The plot is very much in keeping with The Hummingbird: the crimes stem from various complex socio-cultural issues affecting not just Finland but most of the world. While The Hummingbird looked at how forced marriage can affect people, in The Defenceless we see how a person can be affected when he is forced to leave his home country because his life is in danger as a result of not being part of the majority religion. After the murder of his father, mother and brother, and having made the treacherous journey to Finland to request asylum, Sammy is plunged into desperation when his application is turned down. He has spent the last two years, four months and a week in a reception centre, trying to kick his heroin addiction, and then he received his deportation notice. After that he went underground, sleeping rough and dossing down where he can. His heroin addiction has been replaced by an addiction to Subutex. Hiekkapelto shows the reader a vivid and terrifying picture of what Sammy’s life is like, and how it feels to be trapped by circumstances which are out of your control. She also shows how inter-connected social issues are: problems in one country affect others in complex ways.

Just as The Defenceless is about the old man, and Sammy, it is also about Anna and her life in Finland as an immigrant and a police officer. As an outsider, she reflects on the customs and preoccupations of the Finnish people, and on how she has adopted many of these. She reflects on where her home is, the displacement she feels, and how odd the situation is that her home country now has another name. It made me think about the link between belonging and geography. Is it people we get attached to or a place? Is ‘place’ a name given to a geographical space or is it landscape, terrain, soil and buildings? Or is place a combination of people and landscape?

Part way through the book Anna’s brother returns to Hungary and the events surrounding his departure, and his absence, prompt reflection by Anna on how settled she feels in Finland. In The Hummingbird, I was aware of thinking how much better Anna had coped with cultural dislocation but in this novel it felt more obvious that she appreciates many aspects of her life in Finland but also grieves for what she has left behind in a way which eats into her peace of mind. She stops herself from drinking daily but seems to want to, and then when she does, she ends up binge drinking and having a one night stand with a man whose name she cannot remember in the morning. Her melancholic reflections are frequent and she thinks a lot about Esko’s drinking, and her brother’s. Her attitude towards alcohol seems conflicted: she is sympathetic of those who drink but also slightly judgemental.

I find Anna an extremely interesting character. She is complex and full of contradictions. She is intelligent and thinks continuously about her life and life in general. She is sympathetic, particularly towards Sammy, and to her friends who run the pizzeria, but she allows Gabriella to become quite dependent on her and then feels irritated by her neediness. It is as if she is still figuring out who she wants to be and how she wants to live her life. There are some nice friendships growing in the Violent Crimes Unit, for example with Sari.

Many aspects of The Defenceless are sad. If you read for escapism and entertainment, this novel probably isn’t for you. But in my opinion, it is an extremely important book. Hiekkapelto does social realism extremely well, and having worked with immigrant children and been an immigrant herself, she has plenty of experience from which to write. She doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics and is prepared to take risks to explore aspects of life which interest her. What leaps off the page is how much she clearly cares about the worlds she writes about and the people in them. This is why I believe that there is much in the book which is heartening and transcendent and redemptive: the role of friendship and love; loyalty; courage and resilience; human adaptability; hope. And much more. Sammy’s story is an important one. It is also heartbreaking. When I was re-reading the novel for this review, I caught a programme on Radio 4 with Kate Adie, and it was looking at the problems of addiction in Karachi. I immediately thought of Sammy. (The programme is here for anyone who’s interested: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b062hbn1 The Karachi part starts 11.45 mins in)

The role of nature is often prominent in Nordic Noir, and I really like the way that the author builds descriptions of the weather, the flora and fauna, the changing temperature and the melting snow into what the characters are doing and thinking. The weather is prominent in their lives as it is for people living in Nordic countries.

Finally, I would like to mention how stunning the covers are to Hiekkapelto’s books. When I read The Hummingbird, I really liked the light on the water, through bare trees, and also the black, white and red circles. The Defenceless continues these themes, foregrounding the role of the weather, the seasons and the landscape in the novels. With the new novel, I like the light coming through the snow-covered trees onto the forest path.

In sum, I found this novel highly affecting. It is so interesting to read how issues which affect society in the UK affect other countries in similar and different ways. Sammy’s plight has stayed with me.

The first book in the series

The second book in the series

Kati, signing my book at CrimeFest, Bristol, May 2015

With thanks to Orenda Books for providing me with a review copy of the novel.

My review of The Hummingbird is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/06/07/the-hummingbird-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/

Kati’s website is here: http://katihiekkapelto.com/

My interview with Kati, on the themes in her writing, and much more, is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/07/31/q-a-with-kati-hiekkapelto-special-feature-part-1/

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Q & A with Kati Hiekkapelto – publication of The Defenceless

Kati Hiekkapelto is a best-selling, award winning writer, a punk singer and a performance artist.  She lives on the island of Hailuoto in the north of Finland.

Photo credit: Aki Roukala.

I’m thrilled to be closing the official blog tour for The Defenceless.

Kati’s first novel, The Hummingbird, was published in the UK in September 2014. Her second novel, The Defenceless, was published in translation in the UK on August 1st 2015 (e-book) and early September in paperback.

I asked Kati if she would like to do a Q & A on some of the themes in her writing and what her life in Finland is like, including her punk singing and experiences of immigration. Reviews of both books are linked at the bottom of this blogpost.

Defenceless Blog Tour

Kati, lovely to have you on the blog. I see you are currently in Serbia, doing some research for subsequent Anna Fekete books.

 

Q & A

1. Your second novel, The Defenceless, is published in English on August 1st. It has won an award in Finland and been a bestseller there. What inspired the plot for the book and how did you do your research?

The plot for The Defenceless had two inspiring incidents. Both happened when I was still writing The Hummingbird. I was having a couple of days writing retreat at my mum’s apartment in Oulu (the nearest town on the mainland) and I went to bed after a long day. I was really tired but I could not sleep because someone in a neighbouring flat was having a party and the music was so loud that it was hurting my ears and making the bed shake. I got really, really angry and decided to go to the flat and tell them to switch off the music. I jumped out of bed and was almost in the corridor when I suddenly got scared. What if they were on drugs? What if they killed me? And at that moment I realized that this would be the beginning of the next novel.

The other thing happened a bit later. I was hiding a Pakistani family from the police on Hailuoto. After years of waiting in refugee centres they did not get permission for asylum in Finland. If the police had found them they would have been sent back to Pakistan. It was a Christian family, mother, father and two little kids, the youngest of whom was born in Finland. They had lost everything in Pakistan and the father was sure he would be killed if he was sent back. Their case made me to do some research into the situation of the Christian minority in Pakistan. It is not a pleasant situation. This is how one of the main characters in The Defenceless, Sammy, was born.

 

2. Both your novels, The Hummingbird and The Defenceless, have immigrants as key characters. What interests you about this group of people?

When I was studying special education at university, I wrote my Masters thesis on racist bullying in Finnish schools. I used to work as a teacher for immigrant/refugee children. My ex-husband is a minority Hungarian from the former Yugoslavia (like Anna Fekete) and he came to Finland as an asylum seeker. So I have plenty of professional and personal knowledge on this theme. Multi-culturalism has been my everyday life for about 20 years. When I wrote The Hummingbird, I was re-reading my Masters thesis. In it I quoted research from the 90s which found that in Finland we don’t ‘hear’ the voice of immigrants. Like all minority groups, they are treated as a target of ‘our’ actions; almost all public discussion about immigration has the voice of majority. Little has changed since. And it will never change if we, the majority, don’t do anything about it.

 

3. As a Finn who lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia, how was your own experience of immigration?

Even though I was living on my own with three children in Serbia (my ex-husband was working in Bosnia then) I was a very privileged immigrant. I had money and I had a network of my ex-husband’s family and friends. We lived in a big house and I quickly learned to speak Hungarian. And maybe the most important thing: I had an EU passport. I was free to come and go across the EU border to Hungary. Locals needed a visa. So I can never compare myself to those who have nothing and who are in danger, dependent on smugglers or on people’s good will. And even though I had everything, it was not easy to live in foreign country. I was often lonely, the system was different, I could not understand everything people said. Especially in the beginning, it was really frustrating. I can just imagine, how hard it can be if you have nothing!

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Kati, signing for me at CrimeFest, 2015.

 

4. My fantasy of life on a small island is that it is like a Greek island in August all year round. Tell us about the reality of life on Hailuoto through the seasons.

A Greek island! This made me laugh. We have long, cold winters with lots of snow and then we have short, cold summers but with less snow. In winter we have an icy road from the mainland to the island, which is 10km long. The ferry runs all year round and it breaks up the ice. Last winter was the first time that we did not have ice on the road. The sea was frozen, but not enough for it to be a proper road. Global warming is having its effect here too. Winters are not as freezing as they used to be and storms are much more common. The island is covered by darkness and silence. It is actually quite beautiful. Spring is here when the sun shines again and then the weather is perfect for cross country skiing. The Defenceless is set in spring. I wanted to describe how the light gets stronger each day, how the backbone of winter is slowly broken away. Summer is short but intense. It is so light that you don’t want to sleep at all. We have a couple of cool festivals here and lots of mosquitoes. We swim in the sea and enjoy the sun. Autumn is my favourite season. The forests are full of berries and mushrooms then and these are free for everyone to pick. I also go hunting during this period. It gradually gets colder and darker, migrant birds fly away, and it feels like nature is going to sleep.

 

5. Where I live, local people are concerned about where newcomers have moved from. At a national level, do you think that we will ever reach a point in society where it doesn’t matter whether people are immigrants or non-immigrants?

I really hope so, but to be honest I don’t believe this will ever happen. Human beings are cruel animals.

 

6. What do you think drives our human obsession with difference? Why do we need to classify people as ‘us’ and ‘them’?

Feelings of superiority, power, security and control. And the fear of losing these things.

 

7. In the UK we have immigrants from various countries and cultures, and have done for decades. In your experience, do you think that some groups cope with the ‘immigrant experience’ better than others? If so, why do you think this is?

In general the closer your country, culture and language of origin is to the country you go to live in, the easier it is to adapt and integrate. But we have to keep in mind that in all groups there are individuals who cope very well and also individuals who don’t. I think it could be very useful to study why some immigrants cope well, what their personal histories and skills are, if any coincidences happened, how their surroundings treated them when they arrived etc. Instead of looking at bad examples we should learn from the good ones. I believe that school and work opportunities are key factors here.

 

8. You are clearly very creative. Is there any overlap between singing in a punk band, performance art and creative writing? What sort of performance art do you do? And do you write song lyrics?

Yes, there is an overlap. Everything springs from the need for self-expression. I have been a punk since I was young. I write most of my band’s song lyrics and I’m the lead singer. I have always been a rebel and I always will be. Punk is about having a DIY attitude, freedom of creativity and anger towards the rotten, money oriented system. In punk I can be angry and crazy. When performing I can be just crazy. I have an alter-ego called ‘Ginger Cunt’. She wears my wedding dress and goes to forests and the seashore and swamps, or sometimes shopping. My performances have an eco-feminist aspect and they are not meant to be performed before audience. Sometimes I shoot a video and sometimes I do things with my friend who wears a wedding dress bought from a flea market. Like punk, performance art is a good way to poke fun at oneself. We all want to look so intelligent and be taken seriously, I want to laugh at myself (and others like me). Also the idea of a piece of art, which is not performed in front of an audience and which is never repeated, really fascinates me. It is so different from, for example, a book which can basically last hundreds of years, or a gig, where the same songs you have practised and performed hundreds of times are played over and over.

Photo credit: Aki Roukala

 

9. Having read both your novels, identity is a theme which runs through them. Was this a conscious choice? What is it about identity which interests you?

Identity wasn’t a conscious choice but it came naturally with the themes of immigration. My main interest is the connection between language and identity. How do we construct our self-image – and that of others – through language? What happens if language cannot develop normally, if you lose your mother tongue, or lose people, books, education, and the media etc? Do people perceive themselves and the world around them differently depending on the language they use? How has it affected to Anna that she has lived most of her life in Finnish speaking surroundings?

 

10. To what extent do you think that culture and geography contribute to identity?

Culture is based on communication, transactions and language within groups of individuals. Culture is the sum of the actions and reflections of different identities. It is not fixed thing. It is continually moving, waving, developing and changing. And also the other way round: identities are formed by their surrounding cultures. Geography is like a frame. It defines certain basic elements of our everyday lives and therefore contributes to culture and identity.

 

11. Part of the experience of moving to another country involves cultural dislocation. What does ‘culture’ mean to you, and how easy is it to take your own culture with you when you move to another culture? How easy it is to adapt to a new culture?

Ease of adaptation depends on society’s flexibility. If society is stuck stubbornly in the ways of the past, it is really hard for newcomers to adapt no matter how they want or try.

 

12. It is interesting to reflect on why people respond differently to moving country. Can you explain why you think Anna has learnt Finnish (amongst other languages) and developed her career whereas her brother has struggled to settle, hasn’t learnt Finnish, and has found it hard to find employment?

Anna was the perfect age when she and her family came to Finland. She was almost 10 years, old enough to have learnt her mother tongue, Hungarian, properly and young enough to adapt to her new school and learn a new language. Studies show that children aged 7-10 years are in the optimal phase of development of their mother tongue to learn new languages. If you are younger your own language is not strong enough to act as a base for a new language, and if you are older, it is harder to study because the language used in school is more complex. So, yet again, the important thing is the language. Anna’s brother, Ákos, was a young man when they arrived. His education in Yugoslavia was interrupted. He could not study in Finland because he didn’t speak Finnish and so he could not get a job. I think Ákos feels that he is worthless, that he’s a failure. Maybe he compares himself to his sister who has done so well, and feels ashamed.

Kati telling us about her detective, Anna Fakete, at CrimeFest in Bristol, May 2015.

 

13. Another strong theme in your writing is belonging. Maslow places this in the centre of his hierarchy of needs. What does ‘belonging’ mean to you, and how important do you think it is to people?

I believe all human beings have things in common despite their culture, religion or whatever. One of these things is the need for a sense of belonging. We all want to belong to something: family, a group of friends, a book club or a football team. We need other people. We are pack animals. This need can be exploited too. I don’t believe we need to belong to a nation or country. If we think and feel that way, it is due to a couple hundred years of brain washing. Leaders, lords and money makers benefit if we act like sheep.

 

14. You have untranslated Hungarian phrases in both your novels. The meaning of some of these can be guessed from their context but not all. Was this a deliberate choice on your part and, if so, what effect did you want the phrases to have?

I wanted to give the reader a taste of how it feels when you don’t understand everything. That’s how it was for Anna when she came to Finland and how it still is for her brother. Nothing particularly important is untranslated. If you want to learn to swear in Hungarian or Serbian, read my books!

 

15. I really enjoy the descriptions of landscape, weather and nature which you incorporate into your writing. Do you include these to be in keeping with Nordic-Noir tradition or are they important to you personally?

Landscape is important to me personally. I live ‘in nature’. I don’t just observe it, I am part of it. It’s a very non-verbal connection and therefore I find it challenging and interesting to try to describe it. Perhaps in Nordic countries we are still so close to nature that landscape descriptions seem like a Noir tradition but actually they are every writer’s experience.

 

16. I have referred to your writing as ‘social realism’ as your novels have plots which stem from issues in contemporary society. Which comes first for you, the issues or the stories?

Story. It is the soil where I develop my characters and themes. Often I don’t even think about issues or themes before that. These form during the writing process. But actually it is the same with a story too. I don’t plan it in detail. Writing is the best way to think and plan both the story and any issues. In the beginning I have a rough idea for a plot and it doesn’t develop if I don’t write. It’s like walking into darkness with a faint hope of finding a route to the light again. It’s a very intuitive process, one which is hard to explain.

 

17. Many of the topics and themes you cover in your novels are potentially sensitive. Some authors are nervous to discuss immigration and culture and prejudice. What are your thoughts about writing about sensitive subjects? Are there any rules that you have?

I write about subjects that interest me and I want to be on the side of people who feel ‘small’ and rejected. I want to be honest in my art, honest with myself. Maybe these are my rules.

 

18. I really like your detective, Anna Fekete. She is capable and determined but also vulnerable. What do you like about her and does anything frustrate you about her?

I think Anna is not a typical female heroine and that is what I like about her. For example, she is not always verbally super-witty and sometimes she can be annoyingly unconfident. What is best about her is that she has the courage to do the right thing even if it’s against the rules. She is a complex person and this fascinates me. Her morals may differ from mine but I let her do what she wants or needs to do. Her unsteadiness can surprise me.

 

19. After The Defenceless, what is next for you?

I’m working on the third Anna Fekete novel. It should come out in Finland next spring.

 

20. Please can we have a photo from you of anything which has meaning for you?

A self portrait with a cigarette, 2006, in Serbia.

 

Thank you so much, Kati, for going into such depth with your answers.

The cover for Kati’s second novel.

My review of The Defenceless is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/08/01/the-defenceless-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/

My review of The Hummingbird is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/06/07/the-hummingbird-by-kati-hiekkapelto-a-review/

Kati’s website is here: http://katihiekkapelto.com/

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto – a review

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.

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Vicky Newham © 2015