Book Review: Tainaron by Leena Krohn

A traveler ventures to a city of insects, called Tainaron, and writes to someone back home about all they’ve seen. This city has bakeries and department stores, a government and a prince. It’s also rich with alien beauty and eldritch horror (and often both at the same time), from a Queen Bee who feeds on happy memories to a sandy colony of ant lions who threaten to suck the traveler dry. All this and more happens in Tainaron: Mail from Another City, which became Leena Krohn’s breakthrough novel when it was first published in Finland.

Tainaron is weird, it’s wonderful, and I’m writing this review not so much to evaluate its quality as to put it on your radar. An epistolary science fiction novel about a human living among bugs is either going to be your thing or it’s not. (I imagine, reading this, that you’ve already decided where you fall.) I knew the second I found it on my library’s shelf that I was going to love it, and I was right.

This was the first I’d ever heard of Leena Krohn, which is a damn shame, because she’s apparently been a legendary writer in Finland for decades. I’m glad we’re getting more translations of her work into English now; for this review, I read a standalone edition of Tainaron published in 2004, translated by Hildi Hawkins, but it’s now more easily available in print as part of the 2015 omnibus, Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction.

cover description:  big block letters spelling K R O H N against an electric blue background.

(As an aside, when I brought Tainaron home from the library I joked to my wife that it was going to scratch my Annihilation eco-fiction itch, so I’m not surprised in the slightest that Cheeky Frawg, helmed by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is The Collected Fiction’s publisher.)

I love novels that manage to be oblique and grounded at the same time, the way a long walk sets your thoughts free because your senses are so busy taking in your surroundings. Right away in the first letter, “The Meadow and the Honey-Pattern,” which describes a visit to a supernatural botanical garden full of giant flowers, I felt lost in the bittersweetness:

“You would enjoy a visit to the meadow, for in Tainaron it is summer and one can look at the flowers face to face. They are as open as the day itself and the hieroglyphs of the honey-patterns are precise and clear. We gaze at them, but they gaze only at the sun, which they resemble. It is so difficult to believe, in the warmth of the day’s heart–just as difficult as before the face of children–that the colour and light of which they are made are matter, and that some time, soon, this very night, their dazzle will be extinguished and will no longer be visible.”

Again, this sort of writing is either going to be your thing or it’s not. I could have pulled out dozens of quotes like this, that don’t move any kind of plot forward, exactly, but still give some impression of change that leaves me fulfilled. Appropriately enough for a book about insects, Tainaron wears its themes of metamorphosis and rebirth on its spider-spun sleeve, full of tantalizing glimpses of the unnamed letter-writer’s relationship with–a friend? a lover?–that seems to have died, or perhaps has only gone into hibernation.

Tainaron is a brisk 124 pages, perfect for reading in a sitting or two. Krohn is in careful control of pacing and tone, so that even the most disturbing scenes, like the ant lions (the ant lions, arghhhh, the ant lions!) and the visit to Tainaron’s mortuary are over before they can get too nightmarish. It never becomes too cute or whimsical, either, even when an entire letter revolves around a mission to buy smoky herbed pastries.

Tainaron makes me fall in love with novels and all that’s possible in the medium all over again. Some stories just aren’t suited for being told any other way than words painstakingly arranged on a page, and a human who processes their grief by living seamlessly in a city of insects is one of them. How could I ever settle on a star rating for something like this?

I’ve said it twice already and I’ll say it one more time: either Tainaron: Mail from Another City is going to be for you, or it’s not. But if you think there’s even the slightest chance you’ll fall into that first category, you owe it to yourself to check it out. More than 30 years after it was first published in Finnish, Tainaron still feels like a new frontier in science fiction.

Tainaron: Mail From Another City by Leena Krohn

Originally published in Finland in 1985; first American edition published in 2004; now available as part of Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction, published in 2015.

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I checked out my copy of Tainaron from the library and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.