Leafy weather. It often crosses my mind when I’m riding my bicycle in the city in the fall. Leaves are falling from trees and collecting on the streets and tram rails. This is how I remember it: A woman is riding her bike. She is in a hurry; the matter is urgent. The leaves are making the rails slippery, and the driver cannot control the tram. A sad, tragic accident.
The scene was written by Anja Snellman, and I will never forget it—even though I realize that I no longer remember in which of her books I actually read it.
Snellman has another scene that I often think about. The scene is from The Geography of Fear: Maaru, the main character, is afraid that she will one day find herself looking at the list of arriving and departing flights in an airport and not finding Helsinki there. Only Helsingborg and Helsingor somewhere in the north, but no Helsinki.
I can find the scene when I open my copy of the book. For some reason, I put a piece of paper inside the book. A few years ago, I needed the quote for a story I was writing, but I could not find it—so I decided to give the author a call. I was frightened and delighted at the same time: a funny little phone call. Do you remember writing that? I need it for an article that I’m writing.
Snellman remembered, and I did not even ask which book the scene was from. I felt stupid. I thanked her, and we hung up.
BEING UNABLE TO FIND HELSINKI on the departures and arrivals board is an impressive, startling scene that makes you recognize your irrational fear of the fleeting nature of everything: things might just disappear.
It also paints a picture of a Helsinki that still exists, from time to time—a city that “only has this cold light,” a city that “was supposed to be the capital but is always desolate, as though under a curfew. Empty trams are riding the rails, brightly lit, screeching sadly on the turns, with a waft of gasoline in the wind from the sea.”
I knew that Snellman’s merits included Helsinki Resident of the Year, but I had not realized how strongly and genuinely the city was present in her works. Other, more current or prominent themes had always attracted more attention.
Time passes, and everything becomes blurred and is eventually forgotten. Books keep piling up, and their stories disintegrate in the mind. The memory is fickle: you read a book, and you may not even remember the plot a week later—which makes me even more delighted about remembering leafy weather, the disappearance of Helsinki, and other details.
They are engraved so deeply in my mind that they have become part of my horizon, my emotional assets. Always there.
I HAVE ELEVEN BOOKS BY SNELLMAN on my bookshelf. The number surprises me: eleven books. That is quite a few, even though it is only around half of her total body of work.
And what books! Sonia O. Was Here, her record-breaking first book that probably still remains the highest-selling debut novel in the history of Finnish literature. The cult novel that jump-started her career, establishing her on the literary scene overnight. An intuitive outburst, a book that broke new ground . . . The list of accolades is endless.
Skin was one of the books I wrote an essay about in college—but I can no longer remember what I thought about the book back then. When I am browsing it now, I am astonished, almost moved to tears, by its beautiful structure and language.
And then The Geography of Fear. Kaboom!
I think no other novel has made a greater impression on me. Maaru and her Midnight Institute, the women who channel their misandry into horrible acts. The story resonated with me at the time: I was a young woman who had just began to realize all the injustice in the world.
And The Safari Club, with its organization of Darwinist male supremacists, well before the advocates of traditional gender roles reappeared after decades of progress. Here I also find leafy weather: “Liana hopped onto Helena’s new, bright red bicycle and pedaled off furiously, as though possessed. Helena watched her friend from the window for as long as she could see. The streets were slippery after the rain. Leafy weather.”
And more: Mother and Dog, Fardom, Pet Shop Girls, Balcony Gods. I put the books into two piles and keep looking at them. Such great variety.
SNELLMAN HAS ALWAYS BEEN able to sense emerging trends, such as sexual liberation, feminism, equality, the media revolution, animal rights, the religious divide. She has discussed topical phenomena in her books ahead of time, long before they reached the mainstream or were even detected.
And now she has graduated as a therapist, discovered that she is a Highly Sensitive Person, and is hosting a topical talk show called Sore Spot—all of which is almost too apt.
Why had I placed her books on the back row of my bookshelf? The more I look through them, the more peculiar my choice seems. How could have I pushed this woman away from the front? I must have thought that her books were no longer relevant for me.
I feel stupid again, even though I understand that such a choice is easy to make when an author is also your contemporary. You live on, and the author lives on. Your relationship evolves. Directions change. You become indifferent to something that used to be significant.
I browse a list of books by Snellman. Balcony Gods was published in 2010. That was the last one I read, I think. Then I lost my grip. All I can remember about Ivana B. is controversy, a public dispute with someone. I read about Capital in the newspaper, but I no longer felt that I should go to the bookstore and get it.
HOWEVER, AS CERTAINLY AS everything disappears, it also emerges again, interwoven in a new way.
For the past few weeks, I have been carrying Autumn Prince in my backpack. The book has a new cover, with Laura Birn and Lauri Tilkanen from the movie based on the book. Directed by Alli Haapasalo, the movie was released in October 2016.
Before reading the book again, all I remembered was a party under an apple tree and a beautiful, tragic young man. After reading the book, I remember the love story of Anja Snellman and author Harri Sirola—a beautiful love story, very much so.
I also realize that the story had become fragmented and blurred in my mind: the party under the apple tree was held in Continents, and the couple standing there were Oona and Bastian, or Anja Snellman and Jukka Orma, her current husband.
But I forgive myself for the confusion. The whole remains intact, and I cannot help noticing how I have grown attached to the way Snellman writes about love.
I THOUGHT THAT LEAFY WEATHER and the disappearance of Helsinki were unique cases, but they are not. The more I browse the books, the more pieces I find that I have stolen, adopted in my life. Peeking into the bathroom cabinet when visiting someone. Skin. Escape. Attitude. I got them from her?
This is so funny. No one is unique, as Snellman herself says—though in which of her books, I cannot remember.
I pick one of her latest novels, Closer, from one of the piles and start reading. I am at the beginning again, in the middle, but never at the end.
By Sanna Kangasniemi, cultural journalist
Published with permission from Helsingin Sanomat
New Terrain Press 2021. All rights reserved.
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