Book Review: The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

1 Dec

Most readers could fly through Lola Rogers’ translation of The Blood of Angels by Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo in a handful of hours. Yet, as the relatively brief enjoyment of a spoonful of honey belies the phenomenal labor of countless bees, so too does consumption of this novel’s simple, flowing prose hide the rich, complex depth of its construction and significance. Sinisalo’s novel captures an apocalyptic, large-scale focus on humanity that is typical of speculative fiction, yet keeps a keenly literary focus on the psychological trials of an individual and family.

In a near future of worldwide catastrophic ecologic change and economic crisis, apiarist Orvo finds his life personally shaken when his long-absent, inattentive father, Ari, returns from the devastated United States and when his activist son, Eero, tragically dies. Ari had taken over Hopevale Meats slaughterhouse, putting him in opposition to Eero’s dedication to animal rights and leadership in organized disruption of industries that utilize – and in Eero’s mind exploit – animals. Eero’s activities and passionate beliefs are only fully revealed to Orvo after his son’s death and discovering Eero’s posts in a personal blog and on the extremist Animalist Revolutionary Army website Eero ran.

The Blood of Angels by Johanna Sinisalo

Interspersed with extracts from Eero’s blogs, The Blood of Angels tracks Orvo’s response to the loss of his son and the growing environmental threats to his livelihood. The mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of honeybee populations appears responsible (along with climate change and drought) for agricultural disruptions and the resulting shortages in national food supplies that have global society reeling. Though CCD hasn’t yet manifested in Finland, Orvo fears his beloved apiary that he inherited from his grandfather, Pupa, may be threatened.

He discovers that the bees of one hive have inexplicably vanished, abandoning their queen and compounding Orvo’s recent personal loss. However, in the loft of his barn, Orvo also discovers a strange window looking out upon a naturally pristine scene of a seemingly foreign world. Reading up on mythology associated with bees, Orvo begins to wonder if honeybee migration to this other universe may account for CCD, and he soon realizes that the bees may not have been the only ones to flee the distress of our Earth for Paradise.

This plot permits Sinisalo to delve into ecological issues of humanity in its relation to fellow animals and its connectedness to the biology of Earth. The instinctual devotion of honeybees at all costs to their role in pollination – and the vital pillar this job forms in the ecology of Earth – contrasts with the behavior of humanity, which for all its intelligence creates technology that destroys habitats, and which appears unable to change in response to the environment when unpleasant, no matter how vital.

“I am a fleer from evil, a dodger of difficulty.

I could at least sometimes not avoid the things that I know are going to turn out badly or upset me or cause me extra trouble. How many times have I left an email unopened for days when I know the sender can’t have anything pleasant to say to me… gone online to change my appointment for a check-up at the dentist that’s already been put off too long, avoided looking at a stain on the shower wall that might be an omen of expensive and difficult-to-repair damage?

[…]

But unpleasantness, misfortune, wrongs that concern me I prefer not to face. It’s a trait I no doubt share with the rest of the world. We prefer to put off inconvenient truths until the very last minute.” (23)

Whether early or late, the consciousness of humans does ultimately compel action against wrongs. In this regard, The Blood of Angels makes key observations regarding activism. First, the best intentions don’t always end up well. Human intervention is inherently disruptive, with unforeseen effects beyond the benefits sought. Would it be good for the environment if everyone stopped eating meat? If we eliminate factory farming, but still need to maintain current product levels, would that then use more land and energy? If we alter apiary practices to combat CCD and use antibiotics – or stop antibiotic use – what will happen? The more we meddle, the worse things may become.

Second, activism in one direction paradoxically engenders withdrawl from others. In The Blood of Angels, the admirable ecological consciousness of the characters comes at the price of personal disconnect from self-awareness and family relation. Orvo’s devotion to the apiary separates him from his son so that he isn’t aware of Eero’s extremist activities. It transposes honeybee behavior onto his perception of his ex-wife. Until the novel’s end, Orvo is defined almost through his inactivity and the misfortune that causes. Ultimately, his one decision to act is not due to any individual need, but for the good of the environment at large. Likewise, Eero’s fanatical devotion to broad animal rights prevents him from relating with his grandfather Ari and takes any time away from closeness with his father.

In regard to these traits, the human characters of the novel act much like honeybees, sacrificing individual relations and regard for devoted focus on the hive (the ecosystem).

However, it also makes the characters less likable or perhaps relateable to the reader. This is particularly true in the blog post portions of the novel, where Eero’s opinions could provoke a negative reaction in the reader, particularly if one is fine with eating meat and strongly disagrees with Eero’s politics and sanctimonious air. Eero’s voice is also balanced by equally extreme voices from comments left in response to his posts. Additionally, the portion of text written in Orvo’s third-person point of view indirectly shows the complexity of Eero and his opinions and the virtues and weaknesses alike that arise from his activism.

Though not about the science of CCD with its hypothesized causes and possible cures, The Blood of Angels could be classified as science fiction with its inclusion of multiple universes. Most would probably classify it more as fantasy or magical realism, which is in line with Sinisalo’s hesitance (to my knowledge) for genre labeling. Only briefly does Sinisalo imply that the other world through the window that Orvo finds is a reality rather than a product of Orvo’s imagination. A symbolic reading is still feasible, and the other world with its Paradise-like aspects is clearly used as an allegory for the after-life, with life “moving [on] to the Other Side”:

“[The bees] own Elysian Fields where angels’ blood is never shed. Immortal, forever young…

The darkness grows thicker and I wait for the stars, holding my breath. I believe that even at its darkest the night on the Other Side isn’t impenetrably black, its darkness never as thick as sludge. I can imagine that even on the most moonless, starless winter night the black of the sky must be transparent, stealthily see-through, so that you sense the flaming heat of a hidden summer beyond it.

A spotless sky.

Euripides’ paradise.” (194)

Tying into the animal rights themes of the novel, this Other Side is accessible to both humans and other animals (bees), illustrating a shared property of having an immortal soul. This harkens back to one of Eero’s posts on what some might argue is the only characteristic separating humanity from other Earthly beasts.

“What if scientists one day locate the soul – if, for instance, it’s shown to be a magnetic field that can perhaps be photographed? I’ll bet you anything that if animals are found to have a similar ‘soul’ then it will be the wrong size, the wrong colour or in some other sense clearly not as good.” (149)

The novel’s thematic focus on ecology and humanity’s responsibility to other life isn’t surprising given Sinisalo’s previous work. What is unexpected from the James Tiptree Jr Award-winning author, however, is the near exclusive feature of male characters. Women in The Blood of Angels are not simply absent, they are creatures that have abandoned, most particularly Eero’s mother Marja-Terrtu who has left Orvo for another man. This interpretation largely comes from the often-misogynistic point of view of Orvo. Readers soon discover that the mother’s ‘abandonment’ is not simply her decision, but rather arises from the power and control of men.

Human society in the novel is thus presented as male-dominated. Here the generations follow Pupa, Ari, Orvo, and Eero, and the women are merely shown as present for the biological role of procreation. This take on gender seems to reinforce the comparison that Sinisalo makes throughout the novel between human society or behavior and that of honeybees. Nonetheless, as noted by Nina Allan in her review of the novel on Strange Horizons, the meaning Sinisalo intends with connections between the portrayal of women and the novel’s themes is not entirely clear.

The Blood of Angels nicely welcomes many interpretations. I, for instance, do not see problems with the ‘passivity’ of the characters that Allan brings up in her review. It clearly could provoke quite different reactions depending on the reader. Beautifully well-written on important issues, it is a novel to check out and a quick read that will linger like honey on the tongue.

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