The tightly bound layers of material atop Norma's head conceal more than a bad hair day, they conceal her most precious secret - her supernatural hair. Grace Keane reviews a very strange novel from Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen.
First published in 2015, Norma was recently translated from Finnish into English by Owen F Witesman. When Anita Naaka jumps into the path of an oncoming train one seeming innocuous morning she leaves her grown-up daughter, Norma alone. Norma has not only lost her one and only true friend, but the only person on this planet in which she can confide a secret which both she and her mother have spent their entire lives trying to keep under wraps.
Hidden beneath Norma's turban is her greatest asset and greatest fear. Norma does not wear a turban simply because it is a favoured fashion accessory, but rather by necessity. The tightly-bound layers of material conceal more than a bad hair day - they conceal Norma’s most precious secret, her supernatural hair.
Growing extraordinary lengths every day, Norma's hair is resilient and tough. It reacts not only to her mood and thoughts, but is sensitive to the people and situations she encounters. Depending on the environment, her locks may sway and float in the air like a purring cat, or corkscrew and turn hard as nails when threatened or sensing danger. Through her hair, Norma can tell if a person is being truthful, if they are sick, where they have been and even what they have eaten that day.
Thus it is that Norma's extraordinary hair raises her suspicions, during a conversation at her mother's funeral, that perhaps her death was not a suicide. As Norma begins her investigation into the true extent of her mother's activities prior to her death, she uncovers yet more potentially life-threatening secrets.
Anita's actions pull Norma into the dark underbelly of global hair salons, baby factories in impoverished areas and international surrogacy. Oksanen creates a mafia-like world where hair salons engage in bloody international turf wars. The victor or ruling `Clan' then claims the rights to procure the highest quality luscious locks, fake extensions or even babies for their clients. Norma's exquisite hair and the source of the elusive Ukrainian extensions her mother sold prior to her death, become the centre point for an exorbitant tale of dodgy dealings and the questionable fine lines between legitimate and criminal business.
Oksanen’s writing and plot undoubtedly has strong feminist undertones. Norma consists almost entirely of female characters, none of whom are particularly sentimental. Moreover, the topics touched upon within the novel - mental health, drug abuse, love, marriage, children and the beauty industry - are all explored from the female viewpoint. Take for example one character’s description of the beauty industry:
...(women) still don't take home the profits even though we provide all the material and all the labour for the beauty industry. Century after century we've given our faces, our hair, our wombs, our breasts, and still the money ends up in men's pockets.
Although the context and plot of Norma might seem a bit far-fetched, it is refreshing to read something quirky and unorthodox. There is not much by way of character development, and I can’t say I was deeply involved with any of the characters, or even Norma herself. Likewise, often it was difficult to track the various relationships and links between each character, especially as Oksanen delves into the past.
The Finnish-Estonian Oksanen has won several awards such as Prix Femina, the Budapest Grand Prize and the European Book Prize for her previous novels When the Doves Disappeared and Purge. Norma is probably unlike anything you will read this year. It is not an amazing novel but it is clever, short and fresh. What’s more, it is always nice to discover a different strand of storytelling.