It’s hard to imagine a woman named “Norma” as exotic (sorry to all the Normas out there, but you know it’s true), but the latest release from famed Helsinki-based writer Sofi Oksanen features just that: a “Norma” with a fantastic secret. Oksanen’s Norma has hair that grows at an incredible rate, she has to cut it every day. Not only that, it allows her to smell emotions on people, helping her maneuver around the mysterious circumstances she finds herself in. The novel opens with the death of Norma’s mother, an apparent suicide. But Norma is suspicious, as she was close with her mother and never suspected any type of depression, especially when a strange man approaches her at the funeral asking odd questions, claiming to have been friends with the deceased. From there, Norma attempts to piece together the last few days of her mother’s life while falling deeper into another family secret involving the illegal hair trade (yes, it exists) and baby farms that hold desperate young women captive in order to sell their babies to wealthy families who are unable to have children of their own.
In case you haven’t come to this conclusion yet yourself, this is an extremely dark book. Northern Europeans have a tendency to wallow in depressing areas of life when it comes to their literature, and this book is no different. However, there’s more to this story than just shadowy corners and suspect characters, the horrible mistreatment and commodification of women’s bodies is the most compelling part of this novel. Because Norma’s abundance of natural hair is so valuable on the open market, she is being hunted like an animal, and soon into the book she makes this startling but accurate observation:
Century after century we’ve given our faces, our hair, our wombs, our breasts and still the money ends up in men’s pockets. They’re the leaders (p. 127).
I find this quote depressing as all hell, but mostly accurate, even here in North America; the ‘free world’ to many. The front of a hair salon to cover an illegal hair selling business and even worse, human slavery is a disturbing, yet convoluted way of getting Oksanen’s point across.
I appreciate the intention of Oksanen in writing this novel, I think it addresses some really important issues, and I loved the magic realism of the hair plot. But, I think there’s too much going on, so things started to feel a bit disorganized about half way through, to the point that I stopped caring about Norma’s well being. Norma is piecing together too many different mini-mysteries so I found myself lost more than once-it didn’t help that the characters were constantly lying either. The ending seemed a bit unbelievable too, which negatively affected my overall impression of the book.
Oksanen is a huge, well-known writer over in Europe, and she’s won a ton of awards, so if this book still sounds promising, by all means give it a go. My only advice is to read it slowly and carefully, you’ll need the time to sort out the details.
I saw this one with a bunch of other ARCs but “Norma with magic hair” just didn’t sound that appealing! I feel ok passing it by now!
hahah yah, you’re probably all right to do that
Have you read any of Oksanen’s other novels? I was a bit underwhelmed by her When the Doves Disappeared, but I have to say that “Norma with magic hair” sounds interesting to me… 🙂
Yes, it can appeal to certain kinds of people I think. I’ve never read her other stuff, but I heard Purge was amazing…
I tend to NOT read mysteries for one of the issues you mentioned: subplots. Seriously. There is something with my brain that doesn’t let it to more than one subplot in a mystery novel. I do better with other genres and subplots (probably because the author’s goal isn’t to confused me and prevent me from figuring out a mystery). I do like the magical realism element you describe, especially smelling emotions. I’ve read another story in which a woman’s hair visibly grows, though that wasn’t a mystery novel.
I love this: “As a female, Smokey found much to relate to in this novel”–and is that why she’s making that I-smell-a-bad-smell face? 😀
Smokey is surprisingly good at detecting my emotions around a certain book. Also, my toddler might have been yelling or something in the background haha
The first half of your review makes this sound really good! I’m tempted… I don’t read enough mysteries to know how I’d do with all the subplots.
Haha well I didn’t hate the book, but I wouldn’t pass up other must reads for it, ya know?
Any book that is described as ‘magical realism’ is not for me! But there’s a much more important matter to discuss. I owe an abject, grovelling apology… to Smokey! I’m sure I’ve been referring to her as a him all this time. An appalling mistake – I should have realised from her poise and grace that she’s a girl…
Haha it’s ok, she’s not miffed. Lots of people mistake her for a male because she’s so burly 🙂
Burly! How rude! She’s just… well-built! 😉
haha you’re right, I regretted writing that description as soon I hit ‘enter’. Luckily Smokey doesn’t have access to my computer so she can’t see what I wrote about her…