"Finnish Nightmares" review: a lighthearted look at life's awkward moments
We’ve all been there. Accidentally making physical contact with a salesperson. Having to endure a friendly but rather chatty stranger. When that salesperson from earlier asked if you need help, and while you said no, you actually really do.
If Finnish Nightmares is to be believed, then the people of Finland know all too well just how awkward life can get. The new book from Penguin Random House collects several of cartoonist Karolina Korhonen’s webcomics, and there’s hardly a scenario that isn’t at least somewhat relatable to each and every person, no matter how outgoing they may be.
While Finnish Nightmares doesn’t have a defined narrative, it does have a protagonist: Matti, a Finnish everyman who enjoys “peace, quiet, and personal space.”
And coffee. Don’t forget the coffee.
Korhonen’s “Nightmares” are broken up into different categories, such as “Neighbors,” “Public Places,” “Social Interactions,” and “At Work.” Each section follows Matti through a variety of scenarios related to each theme, all of which most people encounter in everyday life. Some things are annoyances that are beyond anyone’s control, like a bus being late or getting paired with someone you don’t know. Korhonen draws a great deal of humor out of each situation, and she uses the simplicity of her character designs to great effect. She’s able to get a great deal of expression and character out of Matti’s reactions, like when he has to give a speech or when a stranger looks him in the eye… and smiles.
Finnish Nightmares will oftentimes dip into the surreal and bizarre too, like when you go into work when you’re sick “so you don’t seem lazy”… which is accompanied by a picture of Matti carrying his decapitated head. It’s never gruesome or crass, though, as everything is played for laughs.
And laugh you will. I found myself cracking up very early on, and the charming simplicity of Korhonen’s style immediately drew me in. Korhonen even takes a bit of time to teach us about Finnish culture (Finn’s love milk, which is the most popular drink for each meal), along with throwing in a few common phrases and their translations (“terve,” for instance, is an “informal hello.”)
The isolated scenarios are all funny on their own, playing on the pain of having to endure small talk (which is a recurring theme), uncertainty of how to respond to praise (another recurring theme), and other things that happen every day. The book is at its best during a long stretch of mishaps with a bus, with each successive awkward scenario building on the one before it. It isn’t storytelling in the sense that there is a narrative, but it is storytelling in that there is a distinct ebb and flow to the sequence of scenarios.
My one main complaint is that the retail price is relatively steep for such a short book, with a suggested price of $14.99. The hardcover book has strong binding, and it lays flat well for ease of reading, so construction is not a concern. As good as the jokes are and as enjoyable as it is to read, even the slowest reader will be finished in twenty minutes to a half hour at most. So the quantity may not match the price point, but the quality is still there. This is a book that you may finish with quickly, but you’ll want to share with friends or leave out on your table for when guests come over.
At the very least that will minimize the chance of small talk, and that is real.