They Know Not What They Do

Written by Jussi Valtonen

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

They Know Not What They Do
One World
RRP: £16.99
Released: November 2 2017

Joe Chayefski, an ambitious young American academic, meets graduate Alina at a conference in Rome, follows her home to Helsinki, finds a job in the university, marries, has a son - and returns to the States alone. Culture shock had struck indiscriminately; Alina, stressed after the birth of baby Samuel, was unable to come to terms with Joe’s drive, with his frustration at what he considered the inertia of his Finnish colleagues, their lack of ambition, while socially he felt himself an outsider, craving the familiarity of his Jewish roots. Homesick, he fled.

Twenty years later, divorced from Alina and now married to Miriam, with two young daughters, he is a leading neuroscientist with his own department in Baltimore. There are flies in the ointment however. Because his research involves experiments on monkeys and cats, he is a target for animal rights activists. This is par for the course (although it’s becoming something of a trial lately). It’s far more disturbing when he finds his twelve-year-old daughter sending a photograph of herself, naked, to her boyfriend. Of course her phone is confiscated and of course the child cannot see harm, let alone potential danger in the situation; even her mother views the incident as no more than an indiscretion. In any event the matter is superseded by the discovery that her sister Rebecca is suddenly acquiring expensive designer goods way beyond the means of a fifteen-year-old.

 The explanation is startling. It’s drugs - but a legal commodity, and harmless, even beneficial, as the Head of his girl’s school maintains when confronted by Joe. The source of Rebecca’s material wealth is a technical company producing a panacea that purports to target attention deficiency and improve concentration. Rebecca has become a pusher.

Worse is in store. The difficulty of communicating with his older daughter is exacerbated by a new gift acquired from her benefactors: a tiny machine with wires and miniature ear-buds the use of which results in glazed eyes and a mind that to all intents and purposes is elsewhere. There is more confiscation. Joe is struggling. Miriam maintains he’s neurotic, and his behaviour is certainly volatile, a campaign to expose what he regards as the machinations of a powerful but corrupt business  riving him mad with frustration. His career is on the line, his reputation shattered. Miriam leaves him, taking the girls.

Floundering in the bottom of the pit, drinking, careless, Joe picks up Rebecca’s confiscated gadget, inserts the ear-buds, switches on -  and is seduced by this thing that can convey images directly to the sensory cortices, and those images are  controlled by thought, by Joe’s own thoughts.

At this moment, convinced he is losing his mind, the son he abandoned in Finland twenty years ago comes to his door. The young man, Samuel, is now an animal rights activist. Joe is a vivisectionist.  Samuel wants to talk. The resolution is shocking, satisfactory and ultimately tragic.

A highly original novel with clever twists on more than one old theme. Well-written and translated, it deserves all its plaudits.

Translated by  Kristian London.

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