Even great writers have small beginnings, and small novels are wonderful. The narrator of Sofi Oksanen’s “Baby Jane”, which has just been published in German, is still young and yet she is afraid of growing old: she cannot make ends meet on her own, she hides her unfitness for life under mother-of-pearl on her eyelids and rouge on her cheeks. In the morning she longingly awaits her partner’s departure for work and indulges in the memories of Piki, whom she actually loved. Piki was the butch at her side. Her rock – or at least she played it while she could.
Even in small stories that are not burdened with the weight of the whole world, people can break. One can even clearly see the cracks in their souls. Oksanen, a Finn with Estonian roots, intertwined the history of Estonia with two women’s fates in her novel “Purgatory” and most recently set out to exploit Ukrainian women for a fertility industry in “Dog Park”. “Baby Jane” always stays in Helsinki, with the small lives of two women who are left alone with their mental health problems.
The eponymous film, which Robert Aldrich made in 1962, is Bossa’s favorite film, Piki’s Ex. She mostly stays in the off and yet is never completely gone: because she works, albeit with meanness. One day the narrator painfully realizes that the order she finds at Piki’s was not created for her – but for Piki. And it’s actually a bit like “What Really Happened to Baby Jane?”, you don’t really know where the dependencies and madness are distributed.
“Baby Jane” is Oksanen’s second novel, a wonderfully unpretentious book. It was originally published in 2005 – and that might also explain why the glossary explains such funny things that almost two decades later hardly anyone remembers: that Antila was a cheap department store in Helsinki, that it no longer exists, and who are these women whose music Piki and the narrator love to hear, Courtney Love and Marianne Faithfull, although of course such an entry in the credits won’t help anyone who doesn’t remember her brittle voice.
The two listen to “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and very slowly the narrator transforms into the woman in the song, with her new suburban life with Jonataan, from whom she hides in the bathtub with her memories of Piki: Dreaming of a thousand lovers ’till the world turned to orange and the room went spinning round. Sofi Oksanen’s story doesn’t have a future in store for either Piki or the narrator, but you wish so badly that someone had saved them.