Norma by Sofi Oksanen – review

Published by Atlantic Books

Publication date – 2 November 2017

Source – review copy

Translated by Owen F. Witesman

From the internationally acclaimed author of Purge and When the Doves Disappeared, comes a deliciously dark family drama that is a searing portrait of both the exploitation of women’s bodies and the extremes to which people will go for the sake of beauty.

When Anita Naakka jumps in front of an oncoming train, her daughter, Norma, is left alone with the secret they have spent their lives hiding: Norma has supernatural hair, sensitive to the slightest changes in her mood–and the moods of those around her–moving of its own accord, corkscrewing when danger is near. And so it is her hair that alerts her, while she talks with a strange man at her mother’s funeral, that her mother may not have taken her own life. Setting out to reconstruct Anita’s final months–sifting through puzzling cell phone records, bank statements, video files–Norma begins to realise that her mother knew more about her hair’s powers than she let on: a sinister truth beyond Norma’s imagining.

Norma has magical hair. It grows metres each day, can detect illness and can read the moods of people around her. But she is no Rapunzel. Her hair is her secret, a burden to bear with just her mother. But now her mother is dead, an apparent suicide. And then she meets a man who knew her mother. Her hair tells her he’s dangerous and that her mother’s death may not have been a suicide. Norma has to overcome her grief, and her fear of exposure to find out what really happened to her mother.

To be honest, at first I found myself unsure of what the story was about. The information given to the reader appears sporadic. I felt at times that I had started reading half way through the story. Eventually however things became clearer.

This is not a usual mystery story. It is more an exploration into the role of women in society, how they are used, how people work around systems and rules to benefit from them. It shows the control of men, and women and the roles they play in exploitation of women, be it directly or indirectly through silence and lack of drive to find out the truth behind a product or a service. This is all told through the allegories of hair extensions and surrogacy, a strange combination that works and makes the reader think.

The book is very easy to read. Short chapters lend themselves to allowing the reader to read ‘just one more’. The translation is also very well done. The sign for me of a good translation is the inability to spot that the book has been translated. That was the case with Norma. It never really occurred to me that the novel’s first incarnation was not in English, I read the novel as Sofi Oksanen’s words, not those of the translator, Owen F. Witesman.

Norma is a mixed character. Rebelling in her youth, in her own way, spending money she didn’t have, sleeping with people she probably shouldn’t have, she is now facing being alone as the only person she could be her true self with is gone. Controlled by the moods her hair inflicts, she has to self medicate with a number of anti nausea drugs, vitamins and other items to get through each day. She is taken out of her comfort zone and has to examine all she has ever known, when she decides to look into the truth of her mother’s death.

There is a surreal quality to the novel, lent obviously by the magical qualities of Norma’s hair, but also by the prose and by the way the story of the surrogacy business and the almost clandestine and criminal hair weave business is laid out. There’s a hint of a fairy tale to the story, but one with a darker core, and ultimately with a dénouement that allows the heroine to realise things about herself. I spent a lot of the time wondering if I was enjoying this novel, then the rest of the time realising I was.

An interesting, thought-provoking read. I’ll be keen to read more by Sofi Oksanen in the future.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. That’s an interesting penultimate sentence, Janet. I’ve been avoiding this one – that hair device put me off – but now I’m not so sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It’s a hard book to review Susan. It’s one I neither loved nor loathed so it was hard to put my thoughts into words. It was an interesting read, very surreal. I think it misses it’s point in places but finds it’s stride in others, if that makes sense. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it if you read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really wasn’t sure of this one but you’ve got me seeing there’s more to it…..brilliant review

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Kate. It is a strange one to review, I felt I was trying to catch up with the story, which normally puts me off, but I enjoyed reading it. It’s definitely different!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      Thank you. It is very hard to write about a book you neither love nor loathe. I hope I got the balance right!

      Liked by 1 person

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