There is a sort of ostensibly literary novel that grafts some conventions of genre fiction (zombies! ghosts! time travel! secret codes!) onto an otherwise more typically conventional plot in the hope of making something new. Or, perhaps, of making the reader find, or at least suspect, an allegory in the agglomeration.
That, at any rate, is what “Norma” feels like, although I’d be hard-pressed to say what the allegory might mean.
The novel, by the Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen and translated from the Finnish by Owen Witesman, features a young woman (Norma) whose hair grows constantly and uncontrollably. It is also (the hair) very perceptive, alerting Norma to the emotions, health and intentions of those around her. This hirsute sensitivity proves handy, because Norma has been unwittingly drawn into a hair-related conspiracy by her mother, whose funeral sets the story in motion.
She, the mother, jumped in front of a train, and the mystery is: Why? Was she pushed or driven to it? Does her death have something to do with the salon where she was working with the daughter of a forever friend, now mad, who in her madness threw her daughter’s baby off a balcony?
Beset by enemies and mysteries on every side, Norma takes a job in the same salon, only to find herself immersed in a black market for hair. Who knew extensions were such a lucrative business? Or that Ukrainian suppliers were the gold standard? Or that Norma’s mother was passing off her daughter’s perpetually trimmed tresses as Ukrainian, in order to penetrate that other black market being run by the hair mogul: surrogate motherhood!
Oksanen, author of the internationally bestselling “Purge,” has a rather delightful imagination, and it is a wonder to watch her spin her outrageous story with the utter seriousness of your average thriller.
There’s torture. There are enslaved women, breeding babies. There’s suspense, though at a certain point you have to wonder what you’re afraid might happen, because you’re not sure who’s on whose side or what they’re doing or what they really want. And there’s even a sort-of ghost, a hair revenant and spirit guide who’s there to steer and reassure our heroine.
Oh, there’s also romance, hair-facilitated.
What’s most remarkable is how unremarkable it all seems, laid out along the lines of a somewhat slow thriller and propped up with hair-history research (Norma longs to learn about her roots, so to speak) — a passable entertainment, tricked up with strangeness that is, in the end, a poor substitute for the real thing.
Ellen Akins is a novelist and writing teacher in Wisconsin.
By: Sofi Oksanen, translated from the Finnish by Owen Witesman.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 329 pages, $26.95.
Event: Finn Fest, in conversation with Lynette Reini- Grandell, 1:30 p.m. Sept. 24, American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av., Mpls.