By Sofi Oksanen
Translated by Owen F. Witesman
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Genre: Finnish Literature/Magical Realism
When Anita Naakka jumps in front of an oncoming train, her daughter, Norma, is left alone with the secret they have spent their lives hiding: Norma has supernatural hair, sensitive to the slightest changes in her mood–and the moods of those around her–moving of its own accord, corkscrewing when danger is near. And so it is her hair that alerts her, while she talks with a strange man at her mother’s funeral, that her mother may not have taken her own life. Setting out to reconstruct Anita’s final months–sifting through puzzling cell phone records, bank statements, video files–Norma begins to realize that her mother knew more about her hair’s powers than she let on: a sinister truth beyond Norma’s imagining. As Sofi Oksanen leads us ever more deeply into Norma’s world, weaving together past and present, she gives us a dark family drama that is a searing portrait of both the exploitation of women’s bodies and the extremes to which people will go for the sake of beauty.
Norma was an interesting encounter that occurred during my ongoing efforts to read more translated titles. I cannot say exactly what expectations I had set upon picking it up nor am I certain that they were met. My experience was a complicated one that I am still attempting to sort out.
Norma has a unique attribute. Her hair. It grows at a rapid rate and reacts not only to her own mood, but the mood of those around her. When Norma’s mother suddenly commits suicide, it is this very ability alerts her to the possibility that there is more behind her mother’s death than she has been told. What ensues is a journey to discover the truth and the revelation that perhaps her mother knew more of their shared secret (Norma’s incredible hair) than she told even Norma.
This is a somewhat typical mystery that is heightened by an added dose of magical realism supplied to the reader through Norma’s supernatural hair. Her hair is what defines her, setting her apart from other protagonist. I found this to be a mix of strength and weakness in terms of character development. While this unique feature provides an interesting variant, there was little else here that really made Norma jump off of the page. She was relatable in her grief and isolation, but perhaps not profound. I was comfortable with her, but not astounded. Supporting characters really failed to grow into anything of true interest for myself. They simply co-existed with the story.
The plot does boast some relevant topics that touch on human trafficking and the selling of black market babies that are worth note. However, it all unfolds at a somewhat surreal pace that is hard to describe as rewarding or heavy hitting. Narration is broken down into easily digested chunks that offer a fast read, but also seems to strip away from what I felt could have been a more impactful experience, leaving the reader to question what is really happening at times. The result is awkward and abrupt. I felt engaged but struggled to maintain the connection at times. Perhaps I would have appreciated this more if the author had chosen to place more emphasis on the topics contained within and explored them further. The pacing was ill-timed, dragging on during uneventful moments and skimming through significant revelations. I cannot say how much of my time with Norma was altered due to this being a translated work, but I have found nothing to imply it has not been translated well.
I think many fans of magical realism with an appreciation for the odd and eccentric might enjoy Norma. For myself, it was a mixed bag of emotions that never seemed to fully blossom into something memorable.
Enjoyed with a blend of raspberry hibiscus tea.