From what I had gathered reading through a handful of reviews, The Rabbit Back Literature Society sounded like a sort of surreal fairy tale mystery with magical books that altered their own contents and shady literary societies with murky backgrounds rooted in the unknown. The word ‘charming’ came up quite a few times, as did the term ‘magic-realism’, something I’m actually a huge fan of. I tend to gravitate more towards darker literary fantasy, like Elizabeth Hand’s short story collections, so I was wary of certain adjectives being thrown around in reviews and on the blurbs on the paperback edition’s cover. Thankfully, there are many layers to this seemingly enchanting story about writers and books, as the protagonist Ella Milana would quickly learn, “…under one reality, there’s always another. And another under that.”
In the fictional Finnish town of Rabbit Back, twenty-six-year-old Ella Milana, ‘possessor of a pair of beautifully curving lips and a pair of defective ovaries’ lives with her parents and works as a substitute literature and language teacher at the local high school. After finding some glaring discrepancies in a student’s essay on the book Crime and Punishment, Ella discovers that the library book he used for his essay defers significantly from the original Dostoevsky classic. What begins as a benign mystery involving an ‘irregular’ book proves just the beginning for Ella; her curiosity brings her to the town library where she meets Ingrid Katz, the librarian AND a member of the famed Rabbit Back Literature Society. Founded in the late 60’s by beloved children’s book author Laura White, the society is made up of nine individuals who had been handpicked as children by White herself and trained as writers. After reading a fiction submission by Ella in the local paper’s literary supplement, Ingrid comes to Ella with White’s invitation for her to join the society as the tenth member. But on the night of the society’s celebratory gathering at the author’s home, White inexplicably vanishes in front of her guests in an onslaught of wind and snow.
With her literary ambitions stalled in the wake of her mentor’s disappearance, Ella decides instead to do research into the society itself. By utilizing the group’s unusual ritual simply known as The Game, Ella ambushes another society member and extracts information by getting them to ‘spill’ what they know. With every Game played, Ella’s investigation only grows more strange and disturbing, as her fellow members bare themselves to her and reveal the extent of the enigmatic Laura White’s influence in their professional and personal lives.
I give props to Jaaskelainen for creating such a strange and unpredictable story. I love books about books, and this one was a weird yet entertaining take on the whole thing. We have the town of Rabbit Back whose inhabitants are obsessed with Laura White, to the point where, after White’s disappearance, many of them begin to have dreams of her corpse coming through their windows to read to them aloud from her children’s books. We have her proteges, now older adults with varying degrees of literary success and hang-ups, as revealed to Ella through The Game. Ella herself isn’t perfect, and in consistently challenging her fellow members for information, she must also ‘spill’ to those she challenges, revealing her own innermost secrets. The exchange is intimate, and sometimes brutal, in the case of one male member who confesses a particular brutal incident involving his former fiancée. The scene left me chilled, leaving me to wonder more than a few times if Laura White was really a supernatural creature, a fairy being who had the ability to hold people in her thrall. Ella’s findings only provide a patchwork portrait of her, scraped together from the perspectives of the nine members who had trained under her as children.
Overall, The Rabbit Back Literature Society left me with more questions than answers, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel myself demanding a sequel or some kind of resolution. It’s not a perfect book, I do still have moments of Whuh? whenever I think back on it, but if you’re the type of reader who are content with not having all the answers presented to you, and appreciate the fantastic and unexplained, then this is a book you’ll enjoy.