A Review of ‘The Healer’ by Antti Tuomainen
By Grant Nicol
Question: ‘Which was worse – complete certainty that the worst had happened, or this fear, building up moment by moment? Sudden collapse, or slow, crumbling disintegration?’
Answer: You’ll need to read this book to find out for sure.
We are in Helsinki. It is three days before Christmas and the whole world has gone to hell. At some point in the not so distant future mankind has finally achieved what it has been striving to do for so long now. Through its greed and seemingly endless reserves of stupidity it has made vast parts of the planet uninhabitable and it is working hard to render the rest unusable as well. Pandemics are sweeping the planet and medical resources are stretched to breaking point everywhere.
Many of the inhabitants of Finland have become refugees in their own country due to the deteriorating condition of much of the infrastructure and housing. The police are so ineffectual that those who can afford them have hired private security firms to protect their property. The people who have the money to leave Helsinki are moving to the north of the country. It is the last safe place to live, for now anyway.
Tapani Lehtinen has an even bigger problem though, he can’t find his wife. Johanna is a reporter at a local newspaper and is working on a piece about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’. An idealist who kills businessmen and their entire families to help heal the planet. One massacre at a time. As the hours since her last phone call to Tapani tick by he gradually becomes more and more concerned for her well-being. He knows that something has happened to her and that if she is to be found he will have to do it himself.
The local police have so much to do and so few detectives left to do it that Chief Inspector Harri Jaatinen is unable to help even though he knows Johanna personally. He is simply being overwhelmed by a system that no longer even pretends to work. Unable to contemplate life without her, Tapani sets out on his own to solve the mystery of her sudden disappearance.
He enlists the services of a North African taxi driver called Hamid. Together they form a bizarre yet oddly effective team as Tapani lurches from one disaster to the next on his quest to find his beloved wife. The lengths he is willing to go to in order to achieve this end grow in stature as the obstacles placed in his path do the same.
‘On the other hand, I had heard that there’s something in all of us that’s ready to do almost anything.’
This is a surprising book in many ways. It is the first thing I have read in the now hugely popular genre of Nordic Noir that has tried to paint outside the lines and try something a little different. And that is why it is so good. It’s not even really crime fiction. The story is not driven by the need to solve a crime. It is a love story. It is the story of a man in a world that is falling apart whose own life in the process of doing the very same thing. It is tender, it is thought provoking and it is alive.
Tapani’s first person narration is infectious and captured me from the very first chapter. You want him to succeed because you like him and more importantly, you understand him.
‘I thought about how it’s not the things that are new to us that surprise us, it’s the things we think we know, and find out we don’t.’
Chapter 14 of Part 2 in particular was one of the most touching pieces of literature I’ve come across in some time. It is predominantly Tapani’s reflections on his relationship with Johanna that makes this story so wonderful.
“What if one of us dies?”
“The other one will still be alive”
“Life goes on,’ I say.
“You always say life goes on.”
“Because it always does.”
“Except when it doesn’t.”
“I don’t know,’ I say. “Everything in its time, I guess.”
“If something happens to me,” she says, “I hope it doesn’t get you stuck. I hope that your life will go on.”
“Likewise,” I say.
The dust motes have less sunlight shining on their dance.
“But then,” she says, “if something happens to me and your life goes on in the wrong direction, I’ll definitely come and say something about it.”
“I knew there was a catch.”
“Naturally,” Johanna says. “There’s always a catch.”
I rub her feet and watch her close her eyes. The soft, safe darkness surrounds us and Johanna’s lips curl into a little smile. She’s about to fall asleep, or about to laugh.
This is not just one of the best examples of Nordic fiction I’ve ever read, it is simply one of the best books I’ve read in years. Compared to so many others in the same genre it is strikingly original and succeeds simply because it dares. Antti has invented a strange and yet thoroughly believable world because it is only a few steps away from the one we presently inhabit. As in Cormac McCarthy’s fantastic masterpiece ‘The Road’ you buy into it because it’s just too damn likely to happen to us at some point or other. Mankind is blissfully ignorant of the precipice along which it teeters because it doesn’t want to know. And that is our great shame, because one day, like Tapani we will turn around and find that that which we loved the most is gone.