Monday, 12 December 2016

The Healer by Antti Tuomainen

Anyone who reads the papers and doesn’t bury their head in the sand will know that we have a very serious problem. No, I don’t mean the election of Donald Trump, think bigger and more serious. I am, of course, referring to climate change. If you’re a climate change denier (read idiot) then this, I guess, isn’t going to be of interest. But assuming you aren’t an ostrich and that you have some faith in science, then you might wonder, as I have over the years, why more novelists haven’t tackled the problem.

Antti Tuomainen does just that in his crime thriller, The Healer. The novel is set in Helsinki in the years after catastrophic climate change has kicked in. What’s interesting here is that the author hasn’t plumbed to write a dystopia, this isn’t a Mad Max world where the society has been laid to waste. Rather his setting is in the twilight period, where things are going to hell in a handcart, where society is still functioning but has begun to unravel. He paints a grim picture of a country battered by storms and flooding - a feature of climate change of course, being that where some countries in the Equator will suffer famine and drought, others further north will suffer extreme weather events, heavy rainfall, tornados, etc. With this ecological disaster, social order is beginning to fray. Many Finns are fleeing north. The police are inundated with crime. Refugees from countries further south have arrived in record numbers. Private security companies paid for by the rich dispense vicious, vigilante justice.

It's two days before Christmas and Tapani Lehtinen, a struggling poet, is looking for his wife. Johanna is a journalist. She’s been researching the story of The Healer, a serial killer who has been murdering those he deems responsible for the climate crisis - industrialists, financiers, and suchlike. He slaughters them and their families. Tapani is desperate to find Johanna, but as he criss-crosses the city, he discovers things about her didn’t know. He also uncovers the secret of The Healer.

In many ways, this is an incredibly simple story. Tapani just looking for his wife. He speaks to her boss, an editor just interested in celebrity scandals, as with the world in terminal decline, who wants to read anything serious? He speaks with the overworked police officer leading the hunt for The Healer who Johanna was in touch with. He speaks with her closest friends who he discovers knew some of her secrets. But it’s the setting that makes this novel something special. Antti Tuomainen bring to vivid life a first world city on the brink, and because he doesn’t go full out and paint a picture of utter dystopia, it’s all too believable. For the behaviour he encounters is nothing less than what we have seen in real situations where law and order begins to unravel. How many riots have we seen on the TV news for example, where people start to loot shops as soon as it is apparent that for the time being at least, the police are powerless to intervene?

I have a few minor quibbles with some of the turns of phrase, but this might have been more a translation issue. Tuomainen is a Finnish writer and his novel was translated into English. That said, it is a minor quibble and did little to detract from the reading experience. A slightly bigger quibble is that I felt that the novel suffered a little from brevity. I wanted to explore more of this dark vision of Helsinki. But if anything, that might be a call to arms for other novelists. Too few writers have tackled climate change and hopefully Tuomainen’s novel will lead the charge rather than being a one off.

4 out of 5 stars

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