A new novel by Finnish author Sinisalo (Birdbrain, 2011, etc.) uses harrowing ecological collapse and an idyllic parallel world to examine both the possibility of global disaster and one man’s surreal, life-altering experience of grief.
A successful businessman and small-time beekeeper, Orvo lives in a world pushed slightly further into a future where poor environmental and agricultural decisions have had devastating effects. Food shortages and riots plague the United States, and the disintegration of the American economy is beginning to destabilize the entire developed world. Symptoms of catastrophic ecological damage, including the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of bees, spread until they reach Orvo’s own small hives in Finland. When Orvo’s teenage son, Eero, a fervent animal rights activist, gets killed during an idealistic stunt, Orvo’s grief over his son and the loss of his bees leads him to discover a portal to an unspoiled parallel world where he hopes to find both. The novel alternates between Orvo’s quiet, grief-muffled voice and breathless, increasingly fanatical blog entries written by Eero as a member of the “Animalist Revolutionary Army.” These two contrasting threads allow the story to both withhold essential emotional detail in a reflection of Orvo’s trauma and offer a flood of disturbing factual information about animal rights. While the novel often balances the voices well, playing them against each other to guide the reader’s sympathies and understanding, at other times it fractures into an overwhelming number of elements and unnecessary attempts to obscure aspects of the plot. Orvo’s discovery of the parallel world becomes an unexpected anchor, giving a concrete expression to his grief and reverence for the natural world and drawing on the fascinating, cross-cultural mythology of bees.
At its best, Sinisalo’s novel engages in a fierce discussion of ecological choices while also imagining an unusually picturesque, Orpheus-tinged search for love beyond death.