Psychological Thriller from the Outer Archipelago
Marko Hautala: Torajyvät. Tammi 2011. 262 pp.
Vaasa area native Marko Hautala’s Worms (Torajyvät) is a taut, complex novel. Following three timelines, this high-quality psychological thriller deals with love, loyalty, and the attitudes of small communities towards sin.
The book takes place in the outer archipelago of the Gulf of Bothnia on the fictional island of Spegelö, which one could easily imagine being any of several islands in the Vaasa region, say, Björkö, or, a ferry trip away, Bergö.
Jenni is married to Aaron, 20 years her senior, and they have one son, spirited young Miro. The family receives an invitation to Spegelö, where Aaron’s adult son Markus, who received a brain injury in a car accident years before, lives. Jenni’s strictly religious sister, Iina, is passing her life on the island acting as Markus’ nurse as he waits for death. The fact that Jenni is the injured Markus’ former girlfriend, and that Jenni left him after falling in love with his father, adds an extra twist to the juxtaposition of sin and self-denial. And just so everything will go down in true Old Testament fashion, Markus’ mother, Aaron’s ex-wife Liisa, has also been invited to the island.
With a sort of unassuming minimalism, Hautala uses this set-up to create a strong, every-increasing feeling of tension. Just on the drive to the island things happen and paths cross that create a sinister atmosphere.
On the isolated island, Jenni’s mind hearkens back to a trip to Greece 20 years previously, which included the entire current party, with the addition of Jenni and Iina’s parents.
Jakob Mörtti, shipwrecked on the island in the 1600’s en route to be tried for arson and witchcraft, creates a sounding board for the evil that has taken roost on Spegelö. It is as if the one-eyed, strong-willed Jakob and Jenni are on the same journey, taking turns drafting in each other’s wake.
Hautala depicts the psychological violence and supremacy over the individual connected with sectarianism convincingly. The carnality intrinsic to humanity receives no more condemnation than praise.
As in his previous novel, Shrouds (Käärinliinat), Hautala is playing with questions of reality and illusion. In that novel, the main character turns out to be much sicker than the reader had imagined. In Worms, Hautala beautifully makes flesh a woman whose only desire for her child is a father who does not hit.
Marko Hautala – Worms
“All of the beauty which you behold is ludificatio daemonum, Satan’s sport.” This utterance from Marko Hautala’s freshly-minted thriller Worms.
Hautala’s novel consists of six parts, and the narrative operates in two timeframes, the 1600’s and the present day.
The action begins as Jakob Mört is being transported by sailboat to be interrogated and tried on suspicion of witchcraft. Mört has secreted a small bag of toxic ergot-infected seeds under his shirt for use if necessary. Ergot is a fungal malformation most commonly found in ears of rye that develops in place of the rye grain and can cause chronic poisoning in humans.
We jump to the present. Markus, an historian, has achieved success with a book investigating witch hunts. Fast-forward to an automobile accident, in which Markus is paralyzed, becoming a mummy-like creature with the face of a monster.
At a rural summer home, the fates of Markus’ closest acquaintances are dissected and skeletons are dragged from the closets. And they just keep on coming, a surprising number, up to and including rapes.
The narrative jumps in turns back to the time of the witch hunts and forward to our days—some strange and horrible connection seems to exist between these far-removed time periods.
Hautala concludes the novel in his previous style with a singularly enigmatic moment. In it, Jakob and Markus, separated by the centuries, meet: “Then something clutched his ankle. A cold, slimy touch.”
Filled with creeping dread, Hautala’s novel keeps the reader tightly in its grip from the very first pages. If we wanted to look for an exemplar from foreign literature, then without a doubt what comes to mind are Edgar Allan Poe’s spine-chilling horror stories.
Reviewed by Pertti Ehrnrooth