Helsinki in novels

A person reading a book in front of a window, in the background white cathedral building
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Helsinki's cobblestones perspire and the sea blows its icy breeze through the pages of books, the Töölönlahti bay wraps itself in notes of green, and grumpy metro passengers glide back and forth to their daily grinds.

Literary fiction invites readers to stop, examine and experience the city through all senses. The author has already done this work; by zooming in or fading away, by adding some colour to the landscape or by erasing the most obvious elements and in doing so offering the reader stories and particular topics enriched by a strong sense of Helsinki as a city.

This list presents novels in which Helsinki shows a diverse face: a Shangri-La of tranquility is found in the eastern districts, the Jugendstil houses in Töölö are battlegrounds for ruthless relationships, a senior flatshare is born in Hakaniemi. Some stories are situated in the future, some a hundred years ago. All books were published in the 2000s and have been translated into English. 

Contemporary stories of one thousand and one nights through the eyes of new Europeans: the novels of Hassan Blasim

Iraqi-born and Helsinki-based author and screenwriter Hassan Blasim is one of the most internationally successful writers in Finland in recent years. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his collection of short stories The Iraqi Christ (Comma Press, 2013). Already before then, his debut collection of short stories The Madman of Freedom Square (Comma Press, 2009) attracted rave reviews internationally, as did his his debut novel, God 99 (Comma Press, 2018).

Blasim’s writings take a stand and depict society often through the eyes of refugees arriving in a new country, all with a healthy dose of black humour. East Helsinki serves as the setting for many of the events described in his books, in which the great names of world literature echo vividly.

Hassan Blasim’s books have been translated from Arabic into English by Jonathan Wright. Altogether, his books have been translated into more than 20 different languages, and he has been described as perhaps the greatest writer of Arabic fiction alive.

Family tragedies about the biggest questions of our time: Elina Hirvonen and When I Forgot & When Time Runs Out  

The protagonist of the novel When I Forgot (Tin House Books, 2009), Anna, has decided to sit in a Helsinkian café and read a book for the whole day. Her plan changes when Anna needs to go meet her brother who is being kept in a mental institute. The dense one-day novel takes Anna through the histories of both her own family and that of her boyfriend Ian, who has relocated to Finland from the US. In her first novel, Elina Hirvonen dissects central questions of hate, bitterness and the inheritance of old grudges through the generations.  

When Time Runs Out (Manilla, 2017) is situated in a future moment in Helsinki. An environmental crisis shapes the cityscape and people's minds. Laura Anttila lectures at the university on climate change, hope and individual responsibility. She soon learns that one of her children has turned to extreme acts in the name of protecting the environment. When Time Runs Out is both a psychological family tragedy and a tale of eco terrorism that considers the concepts such as of parenthood and hope. 

Elina Hirvonen is a Helsinki-based journalist, documentarist, author and an active voice in societal discussions who writes about difficult topical themes yet with a light touch.  When I Forgot has been translated into English by Douglas Robinson and When Time Runs Out by Hildi Hawkins.

Finnish tragicomedy at its best: Kari Hotakainen and The Human Part

7,000 euros. This is the price for which Salme Malmikunnas, seller of sewing supplies, offers her life-story to an author drained of ideas at the Helsinki Book Fair. Salme has four children and a husband who has gone mute, all worthy of a story. The enticing starting point weaves into a sharp novel about contemporary people with contemporary worries on contemporary life. The Human Part (MacLehose Press, 2012) also toys the role of authorship, with fact and fiction, as well as the compulsion of subjectivity. The novel also inspired a movie by the same title. The book has been translated into English by Owen F. Witesman

Helsinki and the changing world through the eyes of 90-year-olds: Minna Lindgren and The Lavender Ladies Detective Agency series

Sunset Grove is a retirement home in Helsinki. Siiri, Irma and Anna-Liisa are among its residents, all of whom are 90+ years old. Minna Lindgren's novel trilogy became an international hit and its protagonists are far from traditional. The first part, Death in Sunset Grove (Pan McMillan, 2016), discloses a thread of events at the retirement home including a murder, a fire and various embezzlements. The grannies try their best to keep up with the events and also to prove their own innocence. The trilogy is hilarious: the world seen through mature eyes makes the reader laugh and Lindgren's language is snappy in its humour. The series also offers comments on the quality of elderly care, palliative care, euthanasia and other questions about life. At the same time, the writing is a warm and funny portrayal of friendship, trust and a changing world. 

Death in Sunset Grove (2016), English translation by Kristian London
Escape from Sunset Grove (2017), English translation by Kristian London
The End of Sunset Grove (2018), English translation by Lola Rogers

Sofi Oksanen's Norma takes the readers to the streets of Kallio.
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International human trafficking in Kallio, laced with a light fantastical touch: Sofi Oksanen and Norma

Norma Ross is a fairly regular Helsinkian, except that her hair grows one metre per day and has its own will along with other special qualities. Norma’s magic hair is of such a good quality that there is good money to be made from them on the international hair business circuit. Hair selling and its ethics are a central storyline in Sofi Oksanen's novel Norma (Atlantic, 2018). Oksanen is Finland's best-known contemporary author internationally. Norma mixes magical realism with human rights questions and is a slightly lighter read than her previous works, such as those dealing with Estonian history. Yet the novel is not easy on its reader. Norma takes off on a voyage to the other side of beauty ideals and the streets of Helsinki's Kallio district. The novel has been translated into English by Owen F. Witesman

A peek into the facades of a Helsinkian family of culture: Riikka Pulkkinen and True

At the end of spring, Helsinki breathes to the same rhythm as Elsa and her granddaughter Anna, who is equipped with a busy imagination. Elsa has terminal-stage cancer and as she reminiscences on her life, she slips out the story of the affair of her husband, Anna's grandfather, in the 1960s. Anna's imagination starts to build up a whole world around her grandparents. At the same time, she processes her own feelings of loneliness being unloved. True (Other Press, 2012) is a bourgeois novel with beautiful language, translated into English by Lola Rogers.  

Urban fantasy in East-Helsinki: Elina Rouhiainen and The Summer of Swallows

The teenager Kiuru is an avid book lover with an ability to snap up other people's memories like birds in a net for examination. During the summer before high school, Kiuru snatches a memory carelessly that takes her into to the company of Roma brothers and a new genderqueer friend with an Indian background.  The Summer of Swallows (Kaiken, 2017) is the first book of The Bird Circle trilogy. It diversely tackles questions of minorities and migration. The book has been applauded for its portrayals of the urban landscape with events that take place in Helsinki's Vuosaari district in the summer.  

Roots, shame and the chance of escape: Cristina Sandu & The Union of Synchronised Swimmers

In Cristina Sandu’s The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe, 2012), six girls grow up on a piece of land between two rivers that belongs to no country. As adults, the girls live on different sides of the world. One of them is Anita, who lives in Helsinki and falls in love with Spider Man. This episodic novel that sensitively explores the themes of roots, rootlessness and being a global citizen. The book has been translated into English by the author herself (Sribe, 2012).

The jewel in the crown of Finnish autofiction: Pirkko Saisio and The Red Book of Farewells

The Red Book of Farewells received Finland’s biggest literary award, the Finlandia Prize for Fiction, in 2003. The novel is the last part of an autobiographical trilogy and represents the very best of Nordic autofiction. In The Red Book of Farewells, Pirkko Saisio describes the main character’s discovery of her sexual identity and vocation as a writer. The first part of the trilogy, The Lowest Common Multiple (1998), and the second part, The Backlight (2000), will also be translated into English in the next few years. The Red Book of Farewells has been translated into English by Mia Spangenberg (Two Lines Press, 2023) and will be published in April 2023.

A marriage novel with an absurd twist set in Töölö: Philip Teir and The Winter War

The Winter War is seen as a military conflict with two winners. In this case, the Winter War is however not the one that started in 1939 between Finland and Russia, but the metaphorical war that is the marriage of Max and Katriina, a bourgeois couple in their 60s.  Philip Teir is a Finland-Swedish author and culture writer. His debut novel The Winter War is a multifaceted, funny and at times even disturbingly familiar description of the battlefield known as marriage (as well as on life in general). The Winter War (Serpent's Tail, 2015) was Teir's debut novel and has been is translated into English by Tiina Nunnally

Aerial of the Töölö district at sunset, in which can be seen Temppeliaukio church, the view looking out towards the sea under a gold and pink sky.
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A dystopian thriller and family novel in one package: Jussi Valtonen and They Know Not What They Do

In the book set in Helsinki and Baltimore, the American Joe and Finn Alina fall in love. They make a home in Helsinki and have a son together, Samuel. The present moment depicts Joe and his new family in the US, twenty years later. Jussi Valtonen's thick novel They Know Not What They Do (Oneworld, 2017) has many important themes: alongside a failed partnership and a difficult parent-child relationship, the book deals with cultural differences between both nations and generations, as well as animal testing and its ethics. Set in both the near future and the near past, the global market economy has reached a point where people's brains are manipulated with permission through both medication and technology.

Referred to as Finland's Jonathan Franzen, Jussi Valtonen won Finland's most prestigious literary award, the Finlandia Prize, with this work. The novel has been translated into English by Kristian London

Helsinki through masterful eyes: Kjell Westö and Lang & The Wednesday Club 

The Finland-Swede Kjell Westö is one of Finland's most beloved authors and portrayers of Helsinki. The city becomes familiar and exciting through the lively details of Westö's novels, whether they are situated in the present day or in the early 20th century. Westö has written around ten novels, two of which have been translated into English: Lang and The Wednesday Club

The Wednesday Club (MacLehose, 2016) takes place in the politically important year 1938. Europe is in turmoil as is Helsinki, especially in the life of lawyer Claes Thune. His wife has left him – for his best friend, to add insult to injury. Fortunately, there is the Wednesday Club and its monthly meetings. One Wednesday, the mysterious Mrs. Milja Matilda Wiik is suddenly faced with the ghosts of her past, triggered by her encounter with The Wednesday Club. Westö's novel deals with the scars left by war and the challenges of interpersonal encounters.

The narrator of Lang(Harvill Press, 2005), author Konrad Wendell, tells the story of the passionate affair of long-time friend, successful author and tv host Christian Lang, with a mystery woman, Sarita. The reader first gets to follow Lang's footsteps looking for Sarita along the streets of Helsinki, and soon to solve crimes in the same settings – or more precisely, to look for reasons rather than outcomes.   

Lang has been translated into English by Ebba Segerberg and The Wednesday Club by Neil Smith.   

Helsinki for kids: Hooray for Helsinki! and This is Helsinki

The Oddville boys Tatu and Patu run after their cousin Jori around the capital city in the delightful illustrated story This is Helsinki (2012, Otava). The picture book is full of exciting incidents and action and serves as a fun and colourful introduction to Helsinki for younger readers. The Tatu and Patu characters created by Aino Havukainen and Sami Toivonen are the main protagonists in one of the most beloved children's book series in Finland. This is Helsinki has been translated by Owen Witesman.

Another superb way to explore Helsinki in a colourful way is Karo Hämäläinen and Salla Savolainen's Hooray for Helsinki! Our Very Own City (2012, Tammi). The book was published in 2012 to mark Helsinki's celebration as the World Design Capital as well as the 200th anniversary of the capital city. Like any good design, the book's charm has lasted through the years. It takes the reader on an expedition through Helsinki and also offers a tour of the world of design. Hooray for Helsinki! has been translated by Elina Helenius.         

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This list presents novels in which Helsinki shows a diverse face. Some stories are situated in the future, some a hundred years ago. All books were published in the 2000s and have been translated into English.