Datura, or a Delusion We All SeeDatura, or a Delusion We All See by Leena Krohn

(Read as part of the Book Riot Readharder challenge 2018. Category: A single-sitting book.)

An anonymous woman in an anonymous (though clearly Nordic) city receives a flower for her birthday. She begins dosing herself with its seeds, to help her asthma. At the same time, she takes a job working for The New Anomalist, a magazine devoted to the uncanny and paranormal, whose publisher is always looking for a fresh (and profitable) angle. Datura is told as a series of vignettes – disordered notes, according to the narrator – of encounters with the uncanny. Some are under the aegis of the magazine – but others, increasingly, seem to be spontaneous, and the notes grow less and less reliable…

Datura is the first work I’ve read by Finnish writer Leena Krohn. Her prose – at least in this elegant, inobtrusive translation – has the brevity and clarity I’ve begun to associate with Scandinavian writers, which helps the more haunting and uncanny elements of the story linger all the better, as you gradually absorb the unpleasant implications of drily recorded incidents. What most reviewers seem not to have mentioned is that Datura is also a very funny story about work and journalism – the misery of the narrator as she chases down delusional non-stories on the whim of her editor will resonate with anyone who’s had pages to fill, or been involved in the filling of them.

The tonal mix – weirdness continually undercut by incidents which make the weird seem ridiculous – is the heart of Datura’s ambiguity. As is made clear from the first chapter, the narrator is being slowly poisoned by her self-medication regime. As is not made clear, it’s up to the reader to work out – or decide for themselves, or refuse to decide for that matter – which of the subsequent episodes she records is a dislocation from reality induced by the seeds; which are simply encounters with the credulous, desperate, and crankish; and which may sit somewhere in the middle. Of course it’s possible to take the entire novel as a realistic portrait of mental degeneration. It’s also entirely feasible not to. The people the narrator meets, in general, want there to be more to reality than it appears, whether their explorations are scientific, spiritual, or just somewhat unhappy. In her unknowing experiments, the narrator begins to confirm some of what her subjects believe. But as many a weird fiction protagonist before her has found, the truth of these discoveries is not worth the consequences of making them.

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