Finnish noir focuses on family dysfunction

Cushla McKinney reviews They Know Not What They Do, by Jussi Valtonen. Publisher: OneWorld/Allen & Unwin.

Over the past decade or so, the success of Scandi-noir authors such as Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo has seen a burgeoning market for foreign literature in a variety of genres. Some of these are new, others, like neuroscientist Jussi Valtonen's 2014 techno-thriller They Know Not What They Do, are translations of older works.\

The story's central character, Joe Chayefski, is an award-winning tenured neuroscientist who prides himself on his scientific integrity and social conscience. So when his lab is vandalised by animal-rights activists, his first response is righteous indignation that his work, which has had demonstrable human benefits, should be targeted when that of many other, second-class, researchers is not.

Unfortunately, his attempts to explain this to his attackers (one of whom may be his own estranged son, Samuel, the product of a brief relationship with a Finnish woman) only inflame the situation, and soon his home and family also become targets of attack.

Further blurring the lines between his professional and personal life, Joe discovers that his research has been used to develop an all-in-one media device, the iAm, which forms direct neural connections with the wearer without the need of any external interface. To add insult to injury, his eldest daughter has been recruited as the company's brand leader, filming and uploading video of herself wearing and using their products as part of her daily life.

Rather than calm the situation, Joe's responses to both scenarios only alienate him further from his family and peers and leave him to face the inevitable confrontation with his son alone.

This present-day perspective is intercut by scenes from the past as seen through the eyes of Samuel and his mother Alina, with the interactions (or lack thereof) between the self-absorbed trio creating a tangle of misunderstanding and misdirection that leaves the reader guessing until the end.

In terms of structure and pacing, the novel works well, as does Valtonen's depiction of the messy reality of scientific research as an iterative and slow progression with many false starts and dead ends.

But he has a number of other issues to explore, many of which are obviously personal (he is particularly critical of the Finnish academic system), and his insistence on packing them all into the one novel threatens to overwhelm an otherwise well-crafted thriller.

To cite just one example, the makers of the iAm have links to a publishing house that controls access to all the major scientific journals - against which Joe is conducting a personal crusade - and are marketing a drug for social anxiety to local schools on the basis of spurious research. Even the novel's climax is overplayed, taking place just as billions of 17-year cicadas emerge from their slumber (plague of locusts, anyone?).

Despite this, They Know Not What They Do is a page-turner, skilfully translated by Kristian London.

Winner of Finland's top literary prize and marketed to fans of Jonathan Franzen and David Eggers, I suspect it will be well received by English-speaking readers.

Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.


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