Updated: Oct 11
The novel opens at Norma’s mother’s funeral. A man rather rudely introduces himself to Norma as Max Lambert and claims to have been one of her mother’s old friends. Strangely, seeing as though Norma and her Mother were very close, Norma has never heard of him. He adds to the strangeness by handing Norma a card and saying to get in touch soon, they need to take care of the unpleasant business so Norma can get on with her life.
What unpleasant business? Norma is baffled and confused.
After speaking to her Aunty, Norma realises that Lambert is the family name of her mother’s best friend. It must have been the husband, but they had split up and Norma is certain that her mother would not have wanted him at the funeral.
We then meet two suspicious characters, Marion and Alvar, at the reception who seem to know a lot more about Anita, Norma’s mother, than anybody else. They both know Lambert, we later find he is their father, and he whispers to Marion at the service that everything is going to be fine and nobody could remember Helena. It’s obvious that there is a dark side to these three characters and the suspense and suspicion build.
To cut to the chase, this is a story about a daughter who does not believe her mother’s death is a suicide and that she was murdered. Norma decides to investigate. She finds a flash drive and a memory card which contain messages to Norma from her mother. Norma cannot possibly be prepared for what she is about to find. Interspersed between the chapters of the main narrative we watch, along with Norma, videos from Norma’s mother with information that becomes of vital importance to understanding the main narrative.
What makes this novel stand out from the rest is Norma’s hair. Yes, I did say hair. Norma has supernatural hair that grows at an alarming rate, but speed of growth is not the only attribute it possesses. It reacts to Norma’s mood, curling, tightening, and at times her hair will resemble the snakes on the gorgon’s head, writhing around with a mind of its own. It also enables her to sense people’s emotions which comes in handy when somebody is wishing her harm. Somehow in conjunction with her hair, Norma can smell and sense how a person is feeling. At one point in the book we even find out that she can sense if somebody is sick or has a disease. Know if somebody is going to die. The unfortunate people are surrounded by a black cloud, and upon seeing it, Norma becomes physically sick. It is quite a unique, and considering the narrative, significant magical addition to the story and a terrific idea.
While Norma investigates her mother’s death. We learn about the world of illegal hair trafficking. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s fascinating. After reading this novel I realised I was clueless about the hair industry and the lengths women will go to for the perfect hair.
About a third of the way into the novel the reader discovers that hair is not the only commodity being illegally trafficked. The novel turns to a darker side, into the world of black market baby trading. Rich opulent couples who, for whatever reason cannot have children of their own are offered, almost like a catalogue, designer babies. Both of these industries are run by the Lambert family, and as Norma’s amateur investigating starts to unearth clues, she also finds that she has unearthed more about the type of people the Lambert’s are, and that perhaps she has dug too deep and that her life is in danger.
As well as a cracking narrative, this is another of those books which explore issues such as exploitation and the degradation of life, the theft of dignity and free will. A life of imprisonment without walls. Whenever there is a demand for a product, there is bound to be people ready to take advantage of this demand at the expense of others. Both black markets in this novel involve the exploitation of women and Oksanen does a good job of getting this message across without shoving the facts down the readers throat, which normally produces an unfavourable reaction, and turns the reader away from an important message. Oksanen handles this issue delicately and skilfully. Adding to the narrative rather than losing the reader in aggressive diatribe. Oksanen uses a magical realism novel with an intriguing narrative, as a vehicle to alert the reader to the exploitation of these women.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. It’s well written, the narrative jumping back and forth from the present to the video’s made by Norma’s mother work together in tandem brilliantly to build the whole narrative. The information gleaned from a video comes at the right moment to fill a gap for the reader. The novel also seems to speed up and build in tension on the way to a climactic ending. Loved it. 4 Stars.
Oksanen's bio from her homepage -
Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright Sofi Oksanen (b. 1977) debuted in 2003 with Stalin’s Cows, which won her the recognition of Northern Europe’s readers and critics. Her international breakthrough came not long thereafter with the publication of Purge. Translated into more than 50 languages, the novel earned Oksanen the title of “literary phenomenon” in American press and innumerable awards, there-among The 2010 Nordic Council Literature Prize. Sofi Oksanen has with her powerfully evocative narrative established herself as the greatest voice of her generation. Her latest novel Norma, published in 2015, introduces yet another aspect of Oksanen’s authorship. It is a bold entry into new landscape where reality’s darker sides are edged with a whisper of old magic.
Sofi Oksanen is the recipient of many prestigious awards including The Finlandia Award 2008, The Mika Waltari Award 2008, Cristina of the Year 2008, The Great Finnish Book Club Prize 2008, The Runeberg Award 2009, The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010. Prix Femina Ètranger 2010, Europe Book Prize 2010, Swedish Academy Nordic Prize 2013, Budapest Grand Prize 2013 and Salerno Libro d'Europa Prize 2015.