The Weaver (2016), Emmi Itäranta’s second novel, is a powerful story that occupies a space between the fantastical and the allegorical. Filled with its own symbols and mythology, and set in a world with eerie similarities to our own, Itäranta’s tale of an isolated island community’s struggle to maintain order is worth several re-reads — not just for the pleasure of her prose or for the compelling plot and characters, but for the secondary text woven like a bright thread within the primary body of the novel.
Our narrator and guide is Eliana, a young woman who works in the House of Webs, a respected institution where talented weavers create blankets, tapestries, and more. What could be an idyllic life is fraught with worry and peril: Eliana can read and write, activities normally forbidden to most women, but even more dangerously, she can dream, which the ruling Council punishes through exile or execution. Late one evening, Eliana discovers a badly mutilated stranger outside the house, a young girl with Eliana’s name tattooed on her palm in light-sensitive ink. In saving this girl’s life, Eliana finds herself drawn into a labyrinth of conspiracies and rebellion, one that may shake her identity and the stability of her community to its very core.
Glimpses of the Island and its customs are delivered in drips and drabs as they occur to Eliana or are relevant to her story, rather than in blocks of expositional paragraphs. This makes Eliana’s experiences and reactions to events seem completely natural within each moment — after all, most of us don’t think about the entire history of our government or civilization as it pertains to our day-to-day lives, but we do notice when events or persons don’t behave as planned or expected. Thus we learn that blood-coral is a prized commodity, that Islanders receive ceremonial tattoos, that flooding is a constant threat, etc., but basic information like when and where this all takes place (either in a possible far-flung future or an alternate world entirely) is either ancillary or never mentioned. Many background details are left for the reader to provide on their own, but the foreground of The Weaver is so fully-realized that the gaps and empty spaces come across as an intentional choice by Itäranta rather than laziness or weak storytelling.
As a person with much to hide and everything to lose, Eliana tends to be secretive and solitary, counting only her brother Janos, a Scribe, and Alva, a Healer living with the weavers, as her friends. Their knowledge and areas of expertise add richness to The Weaver, providing context and complications to Eliana’s limited experiences. Eliana’s interactions with the strange girl are a key part of her character development and growth; the mystery of how and why her name came to be tattooed on the other girl’s palm, and the revelation of concealable inks, lead to a multitude of questions about the history of the Island and why those who can dream are considered to be such a threat to order and life. At first glance, Island life seems generally positive and beneficial, but there are early hints that various factions are deeply unhappy, and it’s only a question of how much strain they can bear before everything comes crumbling down. Time and again, Eliana must choose whether to protect her secrets or act in the best interests of those who need her assistance, knowing that her actions carry very real and ominous risk to herself, her loved ones, or even total strangers.
Itäranta’s overall style is poetic and dream-like, occasionally drifting into passages which read as folktale fragments, the significance of which isn’t made plain until late in The Weaver — at which point I doubled back and read them again, discovering an entirely new facet of the story. The novel itself was originally written in Finnish and then translated into English by Itäranta herself, ensuring that the reader is experiencing her work exactly as the author intended, without missteps or odd slips of phrasing.
Readers who enjoy dystopian fiction and gorgeously written prose are sure to enjoy The Weaver. In particular, readers who enjoyed Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver will find much to appreciate: Itäranta’s fable about oppression, gifted individuals, and the unified power of marginalized groups could not be more appropriate for these uncertain times.