Review: “Secret Passages in a Hillside Town” by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Olli Suominen, publisher, husband, and father, lives in small town in Finland. His two most distinguishing traits are a tendency to lose umbrellas and a penchant for detailed, disturbing dreams. When the town is gripped by the surprising bestseller, How to Live a Cinematic Life, by local author, Greta Kara, Olli, like many of his fellow citizens, joins a film club whose mission it is to work through Greta’s film suggestions and the advice based thereupon. It turns out that Greta is looking for a publisher for her upcoming book, a magical travel guide set in the small hillside town of Jyväskylä, where both she and Olli grew up. When she reaches out to him via Facebook, Olli’s life is thrown into turmoil.

Up to now, you might think that Secret Passages is just another novel about an unhappy man trapped in an unhappy relationship looking to rekindle a long-extinguished romance. You would be wrong. This is, after all, a book of magical realism, where abovementioned passages appear in unlikely places and lead to unpredictable destinations, with unforeseeable results. The events that happen to Olli and Greta in the course of the story are rooted in a long-buried secret from their shared past whose actual enormity is skilfully and purposefully unveiled to the reader chapter by chapter, like a bud blossoming in slow motion. In the end, the novel presents two alternative courses of action, but can there be a happy ending in either one? I’m not going to tell you, because Secret Passage in a Hillside Town is a book you need to read for yourself to experience its beauty and tragedy fully.

Besides being an engaging read, this novel is also a wonderful example of an excellent translation, work that in my opinion isn’t really appreciated enough. In this case, translation credits go to Lola M. Rogers.

Secret Passages in a Hillside Town is published by Pushkin Press. I received a copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.

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