Novel about queer love in Helsinki: microcosm of feelings

Novel about queer love in Helsinki: microcosm of feelings

Love life and panic attacks in Helsinki: Sofi Oksanen’s early novel Baby Jane has now been translated into German. The end: pretty sad.

Portrait of Sofi Oksanen.

Knows how to create suspense: Author Sofi Oksanen (here in Berlin in 2020) Photo: Toni Harkonen

“Piki was definitely the coolest lesbian in town when I came to Helsinki as a young girl.” The unnamed narrator in Sofi Oksanen’s novel Baby Jane is enchanted by the butch, who knew how to “take out her wife cool and her cool to help in the coat”. Who wanted to breathe down the back of her neck when she slept, “that was important, […] so she could enjoy the scent of my neck”.

Everything seems so simple and easy. The idea of ​​selling used panties and tights to fetishists works so well that both can make a living from it.

The only funny thing is that every few days Bossa shows up at Piki’s apartment, a woman Piki was with before the narrator. Not only does she have a key to the apartment, she also buys all the groceries for Piki and does her laundry. Why, the narrator asks herself, can’t she do that? She’s Piki’s wife.

And why does Piki always have to have a few beers before going out with the narrator? Why not first with her at the bar they want to go to? Doesn’t she put up with the narrator any other way? But to all the questions, Piki is either silent or gives monosyllabic answers.

The wrong therapy

Of course she has mental problems. She has panic attacks and depression that prevent her from leading a normal life. For her, leaving her apartment is a difficult task that involves long planning.

The Finnish health system funded therapy for her. But the therapy didn’t work. The narrator suspects that it was probably the wrong therapy, but the health insurance no longer pays for a new one. All that remains is alcohol and moderately effective medication.

Baby Jane is Sofi Oksanen’s second novel. The Finnish original was published in 2005. A small romance novel, not as epically broad as “Stalin’s Cows”. or “dog park”. A story that focuses entirely on its two protagonists.

But as in her later books, the author takes her readers with her from the start, lets them soar with the narrator in the highest bliss and lets them crash. In “Baby Jane” she unfolds a microcosm of love with its ups and downs.

Helsinki in the late 1990s

The heterosexual majority society remains in the background for the time being. The past of the two is only hinted at. “Baby Jane” is not a psychological novel that tries to explain its characters. Sofi Oksanen leaves that to her readers.

Instead, she tells of the dreams, problems and contradictions of her protagonists, tells of the precarious conditions in which they live. And she tells of the separation of the gay and lesbian world from the heterosexual world in Helsinki at the end of the 1990s.

When the narrator escapes from the problems with Piki into a relationship with a man, Piki makes her impossible in the scene. As a result, she can no longer be seen in the gay and lesbian bars. At the same time, she is unhappy with the man in bed.

And she knows what Piki would say to that. She “would say I’m whoring now. And so it was. […] I whored around so I didn’t have to make decisions, so I didn’t have to do anything but bathe, so I didn’t have to see the people who used to be my world and Piki’s world.”

Maybe it’s Sofi Oksanen’s own story or has a lot of it, but it’s definitely a highly literaryized story. Sofi Oksanen knows how to build suspense, how to create expectations in the reader and then later fulfill or disappoint them.

How to use comparisons and metaphors correctly dosed. It is the literarization that makes history accessible and understandable. With “Baby Jane”, Sofi Oksanen questions the fact that love conquers everything, as they say. Or is the tragedy of the book that Piki can’t really love? Is that why the novel ends so sadly?

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