When Norma’s mother, Anita, dies by falling in front of a Metro train, Norma is left with a mystery. Did she slip? Did she jump? Was she pushed? And why? And who is the mysterious man who turned up at the funeral?

Meanwhile, Marion and Alvar, owners of the hair salon where she worked are in a panic. Anita had connections that allowed her to provide the salon with a constant supply of high-quality “Ukranian” hair to use for extensions, and the customers loved it. How will they get by without it?

Marion and Alvar, by the way, are the children of Helena, Anita’s closest friend. Helena has been hospitalized for mental illness for many years, and Anita was a frequent visitor.

Also, Norma has magic hair.

So there’s a lot going on in this novel by Sofi Oksansen, translated from the Finnish by Owen F. Witesman. And all of these threads hold some interest. But the book as a whole didn’t come together for me.

As for what I liked, I really loved Norma’s hair. It grows rapidly, reacts to others’ moods, and enables Norma to sense whether others are telling the truth. It’s described well and creates a near-constant source of tension in the book, as Norma tries to hide what her hair can do, a fact that needs to be secret not just because it makes her odd, but also because it could make her a commodity.

And the idea of women as commodities turns out to be a important piece of the story, as Norma digs into her mother’s last days and uncovers an underground surrogacy network. The hair market, it turns out, is an avenue into places where there are vulnerable women whose bodies can be used for others, whether they’re willing or not. It’s a dark piece of the story, and all of that ties in thematically. And I enjoyed when Norma is reading her mother’s journals and piecing it all together.

The problem is that it never does quite come together. The connections between the hair salon and the surrogates becomes pretty muddy, and the whole storyline involving Marion and Alvar, each with their own motives, trying to navigate that network is never as interesting as that of Norma trying to uncover her mother’s secrets. (It probably didn’t help that there’s a Marion and a Margit, and a Lambert and a a Lassi, and an Alvar and an Alla and an Elli and an Eva. It’s a petty complaint, but all these similar names added to my confusion and frustration.)

I was interested enough to read the book through to the end, partially in hopes that it would come together more fully in the end. It does come together, but I didn’t find it especially satisfying, especially in that Norma makes a choice that seems to come our of nowhere and sends her story in a whole new direction that never gets a chance to play itself out.

I’ve heard good things about Okansen’s earlier novel, Purge, so I may give it a try someday. Anyone read it?

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3 Responses to Norma

  1. I’ve not read anything by Okansen but you’ve got me interested – I enjoy Finnish literature so this is now on my wish list. Thanks. :-)

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