Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Blood of Angels: A Review

Johanna Sinsalo's The Blood of Angels (translated by: Lola Rogers) is a nea-future (~2026) story of a slow ecological collapse highlighted by the sad story of a Finish funeral director - beekeeper hobbyist - who is arranging the funeral of his only son.

Johanna Sinsalo is well known in Finland as a science fiction and fantasy writer.   She won back-to-back Atorox (Best Finish Short Story) Awards, and the Finlandia Prize for Literature twice, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2006 and nominated for a Nebula (short story) Award in 2009. This novel won the English Pen Award.

I think that my stories are always quite anchored to reality and very few people have said that they are too weird – I like to write stories that give that almost real feel and play with the idea that this particular version of the universe is somewhere very near, just behind the next corner.
That idea of a universe that is just slightly around the next corner rings very true with this novel.

The novel's plot line has our funeral director- bee keeper hobbiest, Alpo, making preperations for his only son, Areo's,  funeral.  The novel takes place over a short span of time and most of the action is retrospective.  The dead son's voice show up in a series of animal rights - ecology blog posts.  In the novel's present we have guest appearances from the industrialist grandfather, and the Alpo's ex-wife, who has married wealthy and now lives in Australia.
The little bit of strangeness comes in when Alpo finds a very hidden hole to a very quiet, serene, natural place.  What this hole is, how it works, is he crazy?; are all questions he asks of himself and explores.  It is an interesting question of how to react to an odd gift.  What to do with this little pocket world?;  If a pocket world it is?
The pocket world brings in the focus of bees as spiritual creatures.  Alpo does some internet searching:
The traditional stories of many cultures agree that bees have always been associated with life, death and above all, rebirth.
In any mythology where bees appear they're almost without exception tied to the Other Side. They're sometimes even deified. And it's not just local stories - the myth is universal.
I'm no longer surprised that in almost every folk culture bees move easily between worlds.
Virgil wrote that bees possess a divine intelligence.
The shared name for the Indian gods Vishnu, Krishna and Indra is Madhava, or the one born of nectar (And the Finnish word for nectar, mesi, is one of the oldest in the language and has its roots as far back as the Sanskrit word for honey madhu, an entymological common not only in Finnic languages but also the Greek and Anglo-Saxon world, where we find the word mead to refer to an intoxicating drink prepared from honey. (from page 89).
And drinking, along with madness, as in the Greek Dionysus, is also connected with a closeness to God.  This all ties in well with the father-as-funeral-director making preparations for the burial of his son: the obvious analogy of adult society burying our children's future.
If you think I am giving a lot away, I can assure you that this is all thematic in nature.  This is not book of physical adventure, but of emotional adventure.  There is stress in this near future world, and future in our sad fathers life.  How best to navigate all this, along with the mystery of how the son died, with the odd quiet world lying in the background is the primary story.
 So I did like this sad story.  At points there was a little peachiness, but it adds more realism than anything else because it spoken plausibly by people who would feel that way.  If the industrialist, and some of the other folks come off as a little self-focused and uncaring, it is in just the way that people acting within a market driven system should come off.  After all, the idea of the market system is that the greed of the market combines for the best balance of distribution, not that the people within it are heroic.  What happens when the market becomes as big as the world, of course,may cause things to play out a little differently.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.
Obviously little gateways to The Other Side, are not "realistic" in the traditional sense. They are so common in fiction that one would think otherwise, but I am not going down that rabbit hole.  But the rabbit hole (gateway, what ever) is very important to the story, but not the driver of the story.  The driver of the story is ecological collapse, with the honey bees being the main, but not only, point of focus, and how it plays out in the microcosm of people's personal lives.  You even have just a little bit of survival preparation thought through, and the aside that Californian drought exiles invading surrounding States makes for an interesting parallel with Paolo Bacigalupi's recent Water Knife. With the one noted exception it is of the real world.  So I'll call it a 5.
Readability is fairly straightforward.  As the quote above would indicate, there is a fair amount of introspection, as well as retrospective thoughts on a life past.  Reading of a father's very plausible regrets is does not make for a page turner.  Still, while there is symbolism, the story can be read and generally understood, without really thinking any of it through.  A literary 5.

What I gather is the original Finish cover


PioneerPreppy said...

I think only a Female writer could consider Honey Bees as spiritual. Closet Feminist I would imagine :)

Doesn't sound like my cup of tea type book really. I think I lot a little more violence and a little less fantasy in my end of the world type books.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: The author is female, and I don't doubt she considers herself a feminist -although what portion of that broad spectrum she inhabits, I couldn't say. But which is more a fantasy, a post-apocalyptic novel that reads like a retelling of Wyatt Earp, where the good guy with the gun always wins, or an otherwise realistic book where people's victories are very small ones, if they have any at all and come at great cost/sacrifice; but happens to have a hole to somewhere else?