Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Norma

Every woman has a hair story! Norma Ross’s has a secret, one that threatens exposure every time one of her curls sproings when it senses danger. Rather than have her supernatural hair mark Norma as a freak, her mother dedicated herself to her daughter’s welfare, building a somewhat cloistered world for the two of them. But now the mother is gone, by accident or foul play as yet unknown. Finnish author Sofi Oksanen blends magic and gritty realism in Norma, published this week by Knopf. Come meet the author, with her own remarkable hair, on Monday, September 25, at 6:30pm at Kramerbooks in DC. Oksanen is being presented in conjunction with the Finnish embassy.

AFTER THE FUNERAL, nothing went back to the way it had been. As Norma fell behind the other guests and slipped onto the road leading to the cemetery gates, she still tried to make herself believe it was possible, though. Her mother wouldn’t have been offended that she’d already ordered a taxi, and Norma didn’t care about any of the rest of it: relatives she hardly knew, scheming heirs, the fate of the ancestral home of the Naakka family, which was sure to come up over the Karelian pasties and savory sandwich cake as her grandmother interjected observations spun from her brittle memory. Norma would leave the farce behind to try to return to normal life and meet her mother’s death head-on. No more avoiding places that reminded Norma of her. No more being late to work. No more taking taxis instead of the metro, and no more bursting into tears each morning as she tore at her hair with a metal-toothed comb. She wouldn’t forget to eat or drink enough, and she wouldn’t let the life she and her mother had spent so much work building together fall apart. She would prepare for her workday the next morning just as before: she would pick the lint from the back of her blouse and pack her purse with baby oil to tame her curls, diazepam and meclizine to calm her mind and body. Into the bottom of the bag she would toss a travel-size bottle of Elnett hair spray because that was the smell of a normal workday, the choice of women who had their lives in order. That was the kind of woman she intended to be.

After armoring herself for the day to come, she would enter the Sörnäinen Metro Station,

Author Sofi Oksanen. / Photo by Toni Härkönen.

melt into the flowing mass of humanity, and allow the escalator to carry her to the platform as on any other day. The air current would flap the hem of her skirt, people would browse their phones and free newspapers, and none of them would remember the tragedy that had happened on that same platform. Only she would think of it as she prepared to confront the tension that had dominated her workplace through months of labor negotiations. She would realize that nothing in her life had stopped other than her mother’s life.

There was no sign of her taxi. Norma leaned against the cemetery fence and allowed relief to swim into the bubble formed by the benzos and scopolamine. She had survived the funeral. She hadn’t spotted deception in anyone’s commiseration, or hypocrisy in words of sympathy. She hadn’t fainted, vomited, or had a panic attack even though some people had come close enough to hug her. She’d behaved like a model daughter and was finally ready to remove her sunglasses, which had begun to slip down her nose from sweat caused by the heat. Then, just as she was shoving them into her bag, a man she didn’t know came up to her to express his condolences. Norma pushed the glasses back on. She didn’t want company.

“The others already went that way.” Norma motioned toward the restaurant where the reception was being held and pulled the brim of her hat down lower. Instead of leaving, the man extended his hand. Norma ignored the greeting and turned away. She had no interest in interacting with strangers.

But the man didn’t give up. He grabbed Norma’s hand. “Lambert,” the man said. “Max Lambert. One of your mother’s old friends.”

“I don’t remember her ever mentioning you.”

The man laughed. “Did you and your mother talk about all your friends? It’s been ages. When we were younger, Anita and I had some real adventures together.”

Norma pulled her hand away. She could feel the man’s grip on her fingers like a stamp pressed into her skin against her will, and he had used the past tense referring to her mother. It sounded like an insult. Norma hadn’t moved on to that stage yet, and this man didn’t look like one of her mother’s friends. Norma and Anita Ross’s life had been cloistered, their social contact limited to the circles required for their work. What few acquaintances each had had, the other knew, and this man was not one of them.

The man’s hair was slicked back, and his hairline with its widow’s peak looked like that of a younger man. The same couldn’t be said of his skin. The harsh rays of the sun had carved deep lines in his face, and his tan couldn’t conceal bags and broken blood vessels beneath his eyes from years of devoted alcohol consumption. The previous night’s beer stank on his glistening temples. The man’s suit was also yesterday’s vintage, the knees of his trousers hanging loosely. Everything about him sagged, fitting poorly with the serenity of the surrounding conifers. However, he spoke politely enough, his suit was a black appropriate to the occasion, and the fabric looked expensive. His cologne was fresh Kouros, not some- thing that had been sitting on the shelf for years, and his shampoo was salon quality. That was where Norma’s examination ended. Her nose was plugged by drugs and sorrow, and the antinausea patches behind her ears pumped hyoscine steadily into her veins, so she couldn’t read the man any more carefully. When she noticed a lock that had escaped from her ponytail twisting like a corkscrew, she panicked and glanced at the clock on her phone. The taxi should have come by now.

The man took a pair of mirrored sunglasses from a pocket and put them on. “May I offer you a ride?”

“No, thank you. I have a taxi coming.”

The man’s laugh was that of an old gambler, and he sidled up closer to Norma. Something in his voice reminded her of the chatter of a gaggle of tourists. You could always find some wag in the group who talked louder than the others and cracked jokes that everyone laughed at even when the punch line fell flat.

“Well, please get in touch soon. We can take care of all this unpleasant business so you can continue your life.”

The man produced a card from a tarnished case that must have been silver and shoved it into Norma’s hand. The gold chain that encircled his wrist glinted in the sun. He might have won the case in a game of cards or stolen it. Cinematic possibilities flashed through Norma’s mind: What if her mother had had an affair with this man, and what if Norma had sisters and brothers she didn’t know about? Even worse, what if this man was her real father instead of Reijo Ross? Why was she even thinking like this? What if the man had simply come to the wrong funeral?

By the time Margit called, the taxi was nearly in Kallio. Norma answered after the sixth ring. Lambert’s card still rested in her lap, and she snapped its corners as her aunt attempted to persuade her to come back to the reception. The cardstock was sturdy and expensive, a cream hue with embossed gold lettering. There was no title and no address. On a whim, Norma asked her aunt whether Max Lambert had come to the memorial service.

The name didn’t mean anything to Margit. Norma’s guess about the wrong funeral must have been correct, and she was just about to roll down the window and throw the card into the wind.

“Wait, do you mean Helena’s ex-husband?” Margit asked.

Norma started in surprise. She must have numbed herself too much for the funeral. That was why she hadn’t made the connection: her mother’s best friend had the same last name as the man who had just introduced himself.

“Why on earth would Max Lambert come to Anita Ross’s funeral?” Margit asked. “That’s impossible.”

“I think I just saw him. Isn’t he there now?”

“No.”

“Could he have come in Helena’s place?”

“Don’t you remember how Helena and Lambert split up? Your mother would never have wanted that man here.”

In the background of the phone call, Norma could hear the muted voice of the priest and the clinking of plates. When she heard Lambert’s name, Margit had sounded bitter, but now her tone turned impatient. Even so, she spoke of Helena with respect, as if Norma’s mother could hear them—no one treated Helena with as much compassion as Norma’s mother had. And for a moment, her mother was alive again, in this conversation that still adhered to her wishes.

“Those years resulted in a few good children but otherwise only sorrow. Think about what happened to Helena.” Margit took a drink of something, and the glass tinkled. “Forget the whole thing. You must have been mistaken.”

Crazy Helena’s husband. Norma’s mother couldn’t abide anyone calling Helena names, and she had rarely spoken of her visits with her friend. However, over the past few years, her mother visited Kuopio more and more often, and Norma had deduced that Helena was either better or worse. But she hadn’t asked. Hospitals reminded Norma of the fates that deviants always faced, and she’d already heard plenty of those stories from her mother. She had enough torment. And she didn’t know Helena personally—she could barely remember her. It wasn’t until this very moment that she realized she hadn’t asked Margit whether anyone had notified Helena of Norma’s mother’s death, if Helena was even lucid enough to understand anyway.

“Those friends were only trouble.” Margit was becoming agitated again, but her words formed slowly and her mouth was full of cotton, as if she’d taken a sedative.

“Friends, what friends?”

Norma wondered whether Margit would recognize Lambert anymore. He’d left for Sweden decades ago with Reijo Ross, and neither had been seen in the old town since. They hadn’t even come home to bury their own parents.

“Do you mean Reijo? Is anyone there from Reijo’s family? Maybe Lambert came with one of the Rosses.”

“Rosses? Please! The past is the past. No good will come of digging it up.”

Norma’s aunt was probably right, and her mother would have agreed. She had wanted to keep these people where they belonged, in the past. But if no one had been in contact with Reijo, Lambert’s old friend, or with Helena, where had Lambert heard about the accident? Norma didn’t remember what the obituary said, whether it mentioned the funeral. Margit had handled that too. The report in the newspaper had definitely not included her mother’s name: A woman died after falling under a metro train in Sörnäinen. According to the police, there was no foul play. 

Norma pressed another pill out of its blister pack and dropped the business card into her bag. Directory Information said that the man’s phone number was either private or a prepaid account with no address attached. Her mother would have known what to do. Although the false ebullience of the summer radio playlist didn’t fit the day, Norma asked the taxi driver to turn it up. It covered the sniffing. The helplessness. She was over thirty and still used to her mother solving most of the difficult problems that confronted her.

Her mother would never have left her alone to cope with a shady old man who affected her hair like an electric shock.

—Sofi Oksanen

Excerpted from Norma by Sofi Oksanen. Copyright © 2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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