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.
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/
Vicky Newham © 2015