Synopsis of the Novel Katariina by Marisha Rasi-Koskinen
Plot and structure
Margareetta is a thirteen-year-old girl whose father builds houses for a living. Their family is trying out a house that is under construction, “a quick inhabitable home start”, as the mother puts it, until it is finished and sold. Then they move to the ‘tomorrow-house’, then to the ‘day-after-tomorrow-house’. However, these houses are never really theirs. Their furniture is lightweight, easy to assemble and dismantle, easy to carry in the removal van. Their life is a temporary existence in between moves.
Katariina is a girl with golden blond hair, long suntanned legs and the ability to land in a new place as if it were a game that can be started from the beginning. She is always busy going somewhere else. But who is she really?
In the novel people who have been a part of Katariina’s life talk about her. She herself makes her voice heard in the letters and short fragments she writes. The narrative proceeds in fits and starts, and although it is emotionally honest, it does not let the reader off easily.
The novel consists of six parts, each narrated by a different character. The first section describes the thirteen-year-old Margareetta and her meetings with her imaginary sister, which go on acquiring more and more violent and frightening aspects. The story is told from the point of view of the imaginary sister. But only at the end of this first part do we learn that the sister, “Katariina II”, is only a figment of Margareetta’s imagination.
In this part, the author very skilfully creates the impression that the narrator is a real seventeen-year-old girl who accidentally befriends a girl Margareetta four years her junior. This is done by focusing on small details of the girls’ encounters. Only when Margareetta decides to break off the friendship does it dawn on Katariina, at the same time as the reader, that she herself is a fantasy. Katariina’s “home”, where the girls have met, is only the house of a foreign family where Margareetta has been hired as a caretaker while the family takes its summer holiday. (Later in the novel it transpires that house in question is the house of children’s dreams, in which they would have liked or would like to live. They call it the fourth house.)
The unreliable narrator of the first part, the imaginary Katariina, creates the fairytale atmosphere that permeates the entire novel, though from then on the narrative becomes relatively realistic. There are no fantasy elements in the novel. Yet the reader constantly expects something new to be revealed about the plot and the characters, or that some thing that has been previously narrated will be revealed as the author’s skilful sleight of hand. This does happen too, since in each part of the narrative something new is revealed about the characters, especially Katariina, which once again puts everything into a new light. This creates a powerful flow for the reading experience.
In the second part the narrator is Margareetta. She is helping her father to do the final clearing up in one of the houses which once again they are leaving in order for new residents to move in. Rasi-Koskinen now shows her skill as a writer of physical comedy: during the move a small bird flies into the house, and by laying about them with brooms the father and daughter succeed only in breaking a window.
We are also introduced to Katariina, Margareetta’s real sister, who finds it easy to move to new locations and say goodbye to former friends – even Jaakob, the boy next door who is her boyfriend. When she moves to a new place she recreates herself.
Margareetta, on the other hand, would like to have her own group, permanent friends and a permanent home, where real trees would grow in the garden instead of saplings. She dreams of the fourth house Katariina has talked about, the fourth house where they have never lived: old oak trees grew in its garden, and their mother baked bread for them in the oven. But the house is probably just a mirage that never existed. Or did exist, but only as the home of other people.
Margareetta would also need a mother who was present, even if she does not realize her need. For her mother works in the city, and is only home on weekends. Mother does not take part in their temporary life, and Margareetta hardly thinks about her at all.
In spite of the comic nature of the upheavals involved in moving, the mood of the novel is expectant and ominous. Only in the next part, the third one, does the reader learn that it was on the day after a move that Katariina disappeared.
The third part is Katariina and Margareetta’s mother, Anna, who is approaching retirement from her job as a child welfare worker. She has had a nervous breakdown in the middle of a lecture, and then left her own work standing. Driving alone around the city and thinking again of the time eleven years earlier when Katariina disappeared, she finds two children by the side of the road. The two children have been left to fend for themselves, and they are just the kind of children to whom she has been so accustomed in her work. For some reason she takes the children home. They are some sort of compensation for what happened to her daughter eleven years ago when she disappeared just before her graduation party, leaving a letter to say that she would not be coming back.
The fourth part describes the ten-year-old boy Jarek, from the point of view of the other abandoned. Jarek lives in a family hell with his mother and new stepfather, and tries to take care of his four-year-old little sister. With their mother they have first moved from one apartment to another, from country to country. The mother tries her best to take care of them, but is not really able to. Sometimes Jarek’s mother leaves him alone at night when she goes out to have a good time, and sometimes she only sleeps from depression, or from hangovers. A little sister is born, and now a new man beats mother. Jarek finally discovers his mother at home, covered in blood, thinks she is dead and runs away from home with his little sister. Permanently. It transpires that Jarek’s mother’s name is Katariina, and they look for the fourth house which the mother has told them about. It is in this situation that Anna finds the children wandering along the road in the previous section.
The fifth part is narrated by Katariina’s high school boyfriend, Jaakob, directly at the point where the previous part left off. Jaakob sees Katariina being taken into an ambulance and a man taken into a police car. It turns out that Katariina is not dead, as her son Jarek thought in the previous section. She is taken to hospital. It also turns out that that the man who beat Katariina is an old high school friend of Jaakob and Katariina, Joni-Veli or Jiivee, the school’s tough guy. It was because of Jiivee that Katariina left Jaakob, who took revenge for his rejection on the same moving day which the second part of the novel describes. That day he did not post Katariina’s last letter to her new boyfriend, Jiivee, and prevented them from running away together during the graduation party. It is also revealed why on the day of the move Jaakob had fallen down the stairs, disabling himself twenty percent. He had tried to kiss Jiivee, who could not stand him. It had not really been Katariina whom Jaakob loved, but Jiivee, who had always rejected him.
The sixth short section consists of Katariina’s letters, which fit together the pieces of the puzzle from the earlier parts. Here is her letter to her mother, in which she says that she is going to leave before the graduation party; a letter to her new boyfriend Jiivee, the one that Jaakob failed to post, in which Katariina announces her desire to run away with him. Here is also Katariina’s letter from hospital: “Mum and Dad. Margareetta. Take care of the children. Katariina.” Even at the end of the book, the questions of whether Katariina committed suicide in hospital, whether she fled to another new location, or whether she returned, remain open, on the basis of no more than this short note.
The main theme of the novel is the relationships between children and parents, and the absence of adults from children’s lives. Margareetta’s statement serves as a motto: “Children are no necessarily everlasting. Children can’t endure just anything.” The novel’s message is that children need to be taken care of. However, this message is brought out with understanding and multi-dimensionality.
Katariina’s and Margareetta’s mother Anna does not look after her children, because she focuses too much on her work in child protection, the rescuing of other people’s children. She manages to be with her children at weekends, but that is not enough: Katariina has a life of which Anna knows nothing, and that is why she finally loses Katariina. In his attempt to bring in a livelihood for them, the girls’ father is not able to provide them with a home and stability. He builds houses so that he will make a gross profit and bring bread to the family’s table, but does not notice that what the children really need is a permanent home. Katariina tries to take care of Jarek and the little sister, but she does not have the strength for it.
But the novel does not condemn any of the characters. The actions of them all are understandable, all are trying their best. All of the characters evoke sympathy, and their fates are portrayed very movingly.
There are many ways to look after children. And the novel shows that all the methods can fail. Would the parents have been able to act differently? Or is chance the reason for their failure? Would anything have stopped Katariina from becoming a runaway adolescent, a substance abuser, a victim of domestic violence? All those things might have happened anyway, even though her parents had acted differently. Jarek’s case is the same. However, it is a deadly serious thing to try in earnest. To genuinely listen to a child, and to hear what the child needs. Even though one may mishear.
Language / Style
“She talked about a younger sister who may or may not exist. About a mother who comes home every evening at five, or only on weekends. About houses that will remain in place and about the houses that are just props that can be moved from one place to another. About friends who are permanent or temporary. She talked about new houses and houses whose floors have been so worn out by footsteps that the knots in the wood rise up like small mounds in the valleys formed by the fibres. About heavy furniture which hides secret passages.”
Rasi-Koskinen’s novel is borne along by language that has an unmistakable rhythm. It is the beautiful language of a teller of fairy stories, though the themes are grown-up ones. Though it has poetic beauty, it is none the less realistic. Rasi-Koskinen does not play with neologisms or expressions, but relies instead on good, polished language. Yet the novel also has a number of sequences, like the above-quoted passage, that work like prose poems. But they also invariably take the story forward. Rasi-Koskinen’s unmistakable style and narrative method, her ability to map a coherent whole from flashbacks, memories and observations on the present give rise to a narrative voice that is quite unique. Rasi-Koskinen’s voice is assured, and not at all typical of a first novel. Not everything is told, there will always be something that is open, ambiguous – just like in life.
“Jaakob opens his mouth but closes it again. There is nothing to say. He could start to shout. He could shout about how unreliable Katariina is. You do this as well, he could shout, after everything you do this as well! You disappear. You disappear and then I’ll disappear again, too. But he doesn’t shout. He doesn’t say anything. And perhaps that is better. “