In a small hillside town, Olli Suominen - publisher and discontented husband - is constantly losing umbrellas. He has also joined a film club. And Greta, an old flame, has added him on Facebook.
As his life becomes more and more entangled with Greta's, and his wife and son are dragged into the aftermath of this teenage romance, Olli is forced to make a horrible choice. But does he really want to know what the secret passages are? Can he be sure that Greta is who she seems to be? And what actually happened on that summer's day long ago?
Tense, atmospheric and often very funny, Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is another magical Finnish story from the author of the acclaimed The Rabbit Back Literature Society.
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Publisher Olli Suominen spent the rainy days of autumn buying umbrellas and forgetting them all around Jyvaskyla. He also accidentally joined a film club.
The club was screening twenty films that winter. In early September they showed Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which made an impression on Olli. After he saw it he amused himself by looking for women who reminded him of Jeanne Moreau — on the street, at his publishing house and at meetings of the parish council. In the meantime he lost umbrellas — three of them on the worst day.
In October Olli was in his office munching on an apple, fell asleep in the middle of a bite and dreamt until he was awakened by the sound of the telephone. It was a call about a book fair he was planning to attend. Outside the window he could dimly see the rain-drenched park around the old church and the people scurrying through it. After the phone call he ate the rest of the apple and tried to recapture his dream. All he could muster was a trace of melancholy, a feeling that had lingered in his mind over the past several mornings.
This mood came to a head that evening when he saw Clement's Forbidden Games. An orphan girl and a farm boy befriend each other in wartime France and create a graveyard for animals. At the conclusion of the film they are separated. Olli tried to fight it, but in the end he let the tears come.
At home later that night, Olli's wife, Aino Suominen, a schoolteacher and mother, wondered at his red eyes. Olli blamed it on the wind that had hit him as he came up Harju Ridge.
Joining the film club was a consequence of joining Facebook. Other consequences would follow. Later, at the point when things had gone terribly wrong, a memory popped into Olli's mind:
He's with his Grandpa Suominen, the notary, on the shore of Tuomiojarvi, throwing rocks into the lake. The wind is driving splashing waves over the open water towards the boats in the distance. There's a shiver in the air, although it's only July or August. The school holidays are dwindling and summer is curling up into a grey lump, like a spider Olli once accidentally killed in his father's office.
Grandpa stares at the rings of ripples on the water. His tie is flapping in the wind. He's been quiet all day. Now he smiles, points at the stones in the little boy Olli's hand, and says: "There is no act so small that it can't have larger consequences."
Olli drops the stones and turns to look at his grandfather, and there the memory ends.
Olli ended up on Facebook the previous summer after receiving an email from a colleague in Berlin:
Check out my Facebook profile. I set up a Facebook profile with my pictures, videos and events and I want to add you as a friend so you can see it. First, you need to join Facebook! Once you join, you can also create your own profile. Thanks, Dieter.
In the publishing field one must be accessible, so Olli signed up for the service and spent half the workday fiddling with his profile.
He disregarded the vampire games, opinion polls, childish quizzes and virtual gardens. He had no interest in writing trivial messages on his acquaintances' walls or sending them little pictures that were supposed to be some sort of gift. He would use Facebook to attend to business matters. As a phone book and communication tool for the Internet age it was excellent.
At the end of September Olli received a Facebook invitation from the film club. The message said that the club was meeting in the basement of a video store on Kauppakatu. He had met the man who ran the video store several times. The man had served for years as a pastor of a small district of the parish, then received an inheritance, left his job, quit the church and opened the video store.
He had told Olli that he'd lost his faith but found God again through classic movies.
Olli didn't have any time for movies. But out of habit he marked the date and address on his calendar. Then, when the day arrived, he went to the place, thinking that it was some important meeting having to do with the parish council.
The seats in the darkened room were filling up. Footsteps. Rustling. Then silence. Olli could hear the breathing of the other people in the room, and the drip of water from his umbrella on the floor. He realized his mistake and started to get up, but then a light spread over the screen and sound flooded the room.
La dolce vita was beginning.
* * *
On 14th February, Valentine's Day, Olli got a new Facebook friend. The message said:
Greta added you as a friend on Facebook. We need to confirm that you know Greta in order for you to befriends on Facebook.
The link led to a fuzzy profile photo.
Olli already had 324 Facebook friends, and a poor memory for names and faces. In addition to his activities in publishing and the parish council, he belonged to a number of committees and organizations. Theoretically, he knew hundreds, if not thousands of people, although many of them looked alike to him. He wasn't sure if all the people he had accepted as friends were people he knew. So it was understandable that he didn't recognize his first great love when she found him on the Internet.
He added Greta to his crowd of Facebook friends.
April was a busy month. Olli found himself doing a slapdash job with the children's book projects. The guilt gave him indigestion, and it was worse during meetings.
The rest of the group pretended not to notice. Their Western mores of politeness demanded that they ignore everyday unlovely phenomena like pimples, rashes, natural bodily odours and the sounds associated with the digestive tract. At one point the rumbling got so loud that there was a pause in the talk and everyone turned to stare at him, then looked away, shocked at their own tactlessness, and Olli was mortified. He covered his face with his hand, pretending to massage his forehead.
He had been waking up at night with attacks of melancholy. He had been dozing off during the day. One day on his lunch hour he fell asleep at his desk. When he woke up he had a craving for pears. He got up, intending to go to the Mr Delicious fruit stand.
Then there was a knock on the door. It was Maiju Karikko, the house editor, with a stack of manuscripts in her hand. Olli sighed and lowered his bum back into his chair.
Maiju was a businesslike woman, bland and blonde and taller than Olli in her high heels, though Olli was rather tall, like all the men in his family. Maiju walked across the room, settled in the chair across from him, laid the papers on his desk and picked up the manuscript on top.
Olli looked at her hands. She wore her fingernails short, without nail polish. Her fingers were long and thin. Olli, on the other hand, had hands like shovels. "Hands like an educated lumberjack," his mother had lamented, years ago. "The Creator must have run out of matching parts."
But Olli liked his hands. He thought they had a delicate power. Aino had once thought so, too.
"The new Emma Bunny," Maiju said. "Came in the mail."
"That's book number fifteen, isn't it?" Olli said, touching his forehead. "Well, they have sold well since she won the Finlandia Junior Prize."
Olli sank into his thoughts. Maiju mumbled something, then leant towards him and said, "Ihave a fanny and you have a wee wee ... What do you think?" Olli started to cough.
Olli Suominen travelled extensively for his business and met women everywhere he went. Many of them offered themselves to him. But he didn't feel a temptation to enter into any erotic adventures. In fact the thought of getting to know an unfamiliar body with all its idiosyncrasies and imperfections made him feel anxious. His sexual fantasies always focused on his wife's body, which he had come to know inside and out, making the experience pleasantly straightforward.
Olli stared at Maiju without speaking.
"OK," she sighed, seeing his discomfort, but not understanding its cause. "It's only a working title. We'll probably have to polish it a bit. In any case, it's an introductory sex-education book for preschoolers, and that has to be clear in the title."
Olli relaxed and lost himself in staring at a photo on his office wall.
It was a photo of him, taken in that very office, a black-and-white portrait of Olli Suominen, Publisher, in authoritative mode. He wore a grave expression and an upright posture. Olli had a similar photo at home, not of himself but of his paternal grandfather, the notary Mauno Suominen, whom Olli strongly resembled. The similarity had been reinforced when Olli started wearing horn-rimmed glasses and relaxed but stylishly continental suits, just as his grandfather had worn in his day.
Olli wondered what his grandfather would have thought of this children's book.
In addition to writing, Amanda Vuolle was an accomplished watercolourist, and had illustrated the book herself. Maiju showed him two of the illustrations, in which a girl bunny first shows her private parts to a boy kitten, and the boy kitten then shows his private parts to the girl bunny. The author's misty style oozed with sweetness.
Maiju read aloud from the manuscript:
"'I have a fanny, and you have a wee-wee,' Emma Bunny said to Karl Kitten, and kissed him on the cheek. 'I am a girl and you are a boy. Do you like me? I like you. When we grow up, we can get married and have children together.'"
Olli wanted to say something publisher-like, but nothing came to mind. His bum searched for a more comfortable position in his chair. The back of his hand wiped his mouth. His chest felt tight. His nose twitched. He struggled to tamp down the surge of emotion this bunny — kitten love story had evoked in him.
Maiju looked at him. Olli pretended to be clearing his throat.
"We decided at our September meeting that I should commission an educational book from Amanda," Maiju said.
"So here it is. Yeah, it sounds odd, but it's well executed and I think it's a sure hit."
Olli nodded, got up, walked behind her, took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
At the end of the workday, Olli stood in front of the large, many-paned window of his office and looked out, pressing his cheek against the stone wall, his fingers resting on the windowsill. The old glass warped blisters into the wintry cityscape and stretched and twisted the lights and the people passing.
He couldn't see the sky in the dark of 5 p.m., but it was no doubt cloudy. Olli wondered if it was about to snow or sleet. He decided to take his umbrella, just in case.
He shot a glance into each office as he left, hoping not to attract anyone's attention. He had dinner waiting for him at home.
Seija, who handled the finances and served as Maiju's assistant, had left for the day. In the third room he passed he saw Antero, their young publicity agent. He had neat blonde hair and immaculate clothing: a white shirt, narrow tie and suit trousers. He was working on a book ad for Helsinki's largest newspaper, and it had to be ready in the morning.
There was an opened cup of yogurt on his desk, the cover licked clean and carefully folded. Every time Antero licked the cover of his yogurt his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. His thyroid cartilage was larger than average. Sometimes it irritated Olli. It was hard to watch, and harder not to watch.
When Antero noticed Olli in the doorway he pointed at him and mouthed the words Don't forget the flowers. Antero didn't wear a ring. Olli did. He remembered that he had asked Antero for this reminder. He thanked him, and said, "You may have saved my marriage."
Olli went down the stairs, stopped when he got to the street, and paused a moment before starting off. The asphalt was icy. It would be easy to fall and break a bone. He'd had better soles put on his shoes, but he still needed to be careful.
He proceeded with cautious steps, his arms spread slightly, not caring that he looked a bit ridiculous. Once he was safely across he walked onto the ice-free pedestrianized street and gave silent thanks to the city engineer who had thought to circulate the district's heating water under some of the streets, at least.
Jyvaskyla's town centre was small, basically just a few square blocks. Every evening it was jammed with people getting off work, stressed and hungry. They mingled with the school kids loitering on Compass Square or in front of the Forum shopping centre.
Sometimes there was the occasional street musician along the way. Today there was a ragged accordionist on the corner playing The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Olli dropped two euros in his accordion case. The playing intensified. The accordionist wanted to give him his money's worth.
The crowds of people made Olli nervous. Too many faces. Every few steps he raised a hand or nodded in greeting. He met a constant stream of familiar faces — acquaintances from the many organizations he belonged to, or just people who seemed to know him, people he ought to recognize. There were too many of them. Their names and connections were a mystery. His head felt strained. His cheeks quickly tired from this rapid smiling, even if it didn't use all two hundred muscles.
Olli crossed the Forum to the flower kiosk and bought a bouquet of yellow roses.
Aino was wearing a yellow dress the first time they met, in a nightclub popular with students. The place had been too crowded and Olli's friends had decided to continue to another bar. Olli had looked around, chuckling at his mates as he emptied his pint, when suddenly the light in the room had changed somehow, and the sight of a girl came hurtling at him through the dimness.
He still remembered that moment.
A girl in a yellow dress on the other side of the restaurant, chatting with friends. She touches them, laughs and gestures, stands out from her surroundings like a brimstone butterfly alighting on a highway.
Olli finds himself walking across the room. He makes some insignificant remark, and she answers. Two hours later he says, more to himself than to the girl, whose name is Aino, "It's weird, but I feel like I've always known you ..."
They're sitting at a corner table. Olli's hand rests lightly on Aino's, as if he wants to hold on to her so she can't get away — not yet, maybe not ever — but it isn't too possessive, not at that moment. Her face opens up more and more with each minute that passes. Olli enjoys her warm expression, its sincerity. "It's like I was always meant to know you," he says, then regrets it, because Aino is startled, grows serious, withdraws, tilts her head and examines him, looks long and deep.
Olli's smile freezes. She's going to get up and leave, he thinks.
But the girl nods, takes hold of his hand and smiles, as if she's just got to the bottom of an important question.
Olli walked past the compass inlaid in the pavement on Compass Square and headed towards the yellow facade of the Lyceum.
The cold wind slapped at his coat-tails and toppled three bicycles, which fell at his feet. He jumped out of the way, teetered, then righted himself and corrected his stride, in a complicated series of steps that brought him to the other side of the street and made two schoolgirls burst into giggles.
As he reached the corner, he yawned. His eyes closed for a moment. When he opened them again he nearly stumbled over a cocker spaniel that had appeared in front of him. Stepping around the dog, he found himself crossing against a red light, and a car nearly hit him. The horn blared. Olli strode to the opposite kerb, angry and embarrassed, looking back over his shoulder, and ran into a stocky fellow who had just stepped out of the school building.
The man took Olli by the arm to keep him from falling.
"You seem to be in quite a hurry, Mr Suominen," the man said. It was the principal, who was also a member of the school board. Olli took a breath and apologized. The men shook hands in a show of mutual respect. Like two honoured Jyvaskyla men, city leaders who each in his own way and of one accord uphold the civic culture of this, the Athens of Finland — that was how one of the jokers at the Jyvaskyla Club once put it. "You might have spoilt your fine bouquet," the principal continued. "What's the occasion? Is today your wife's birthday?"
Olli told him it was his anniversary. The principal congratulated him. Olli thought about dinner, which was probably already on the table, his wife and son picking up their cutlery at that moment.
The principal lifted his chin, gave Olli a serious look, and said in mock sternness, "Mr Suominen, I hope you have bought your club membership."
Excerpted from "Secret Passages in a Hillside Town"
Copyright © 2010 Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen.
Excerpted by permission of Pushkin Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved Rabbit Back Literature Society from this author, and found some of the otherworldliness felt very appropriate to what I’ve come to know about Finland and the folklore, but here, the few unanswered questions left in the first seem to multiply and spawn anew, as this book is ultimately (I think) about faces presented to the world in different situations – and the secrets those faces may hide, for whatever reasons. Short chapters, many references to ‘cinematic’ selves, ie: the faces we present to the world on social media, versus the ‘true selves’ and can one actually be exchanged for, or completely overwhelm the other in any given interaction. And the interactions are wonderful here, as Olli is trying to find yet another lost umbrella, deal with his wife and teenage son and manage the intrigue that is Greta – an old flame he’s recently reconnected with on Facebook. Perhaps at times the story becomes a bit too symbolic and obscure, with the questions about how real life imitates film, or vice versa, with a rather obscured vision of reality, dreams, film and again, that cinematic face presented: while most flowed reasonably well during the read, in retrospect, there were so many moments that were gems in their own right that faded into a sort of blanket of ‘remove’ in impressions. In fact, the author cleverly (and quite clearly) comments that while readers are having a hard time connecting to or trying to discover why they should care about Olli’s journey, that in a hundred years it won’t matter, and thus brings up the ‘should it matter now’ thought. I’m still puzzling that one out – just where did I find a need to engage with Olli, or was I simply ‘watching’ him puzzle out dreams from reality, truth from fiction, and who is presented to him from who really is standing there. It’s still not entirely clear – but I have to say that the joy here was in the something totally different that keeps me questioning long after the last page. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. Review first appeared at I am, Indeed