Finnish author Sinisalo (The Blood of Angels, 2014, etc.) creates a dystopian near-future Finland where women are subjugated to the demands of men by a chilling system of law and eugenics, all in the name of promoting a placid, healthy, and successful society.
Closed off from the “hedonistic” and “decadent” democracies of the outside world, Finland employs a draconian policy of prohibition—alcohol, cigarettes, and even chili peppers are banned as illegal substances—and a disturbing program of gender division in which a submissive, intellectually stunted, and blandly beautiful subrace of women called “elois” is bred and trained for the sexual pleasure of men and procreation. Women with curiosity and intellect are labeled “morlocks,” sterilized, and forced into lives of crushing labor. When Vanna, a morlock raised by her formidable grandmother to pass as an eloi, needs to help her docile sister, Manna, pay for the expenses of a wedding, she falls into the seedy world of the illegal chili pepper trade, aided by Jare, a friend who both knows and exploits her secrets. They ally themselves with a religious cult that believes breeding an impossibly hot chili will unlock spiritual salvation, and Vanna, a capsaicin addict herself, struggles with the competing desires for the bonds of family and independent rebellion. Narrated in sections that alternate between Vanna and Jare, interspersed with letters and meticulously imagined fragments from magazines, ads, and scholarly articles, the novel creates an impressively detailed and extremely frightening world.
Written with wit and grace—Sinisalo describes depression as “a smooth-walled cavity, an open, echoing cave with a darkness living in it deeper than the space between the stars”—the novel maintains an impressive grasp on plot and suspense, easily luring the reader into taking its characters, politics, and striking story to heart.