Pajtim Statovci, who left Kosovo for Finland with his family as a toddler in the early 1990s, knows how to disorient—and disarm. Who would have guessed that an award for the best first novel written in Finnish would go to a book that features a talking cat, a pet boa constrictor, an Albanian arranged marriage, and a lonely gay immigrant?

Pantheon

The Yugoslav wars figure in the background, but for Statovci’s alternating narrators, a mother and her son, the nightmare of embattled identity neither begins nor ends with the family’s flight from Kosovo. Emine finds herself entrapped in her village outside Prishtina well before the fighting starts. Well after it is over, Bekim drifts into young adulthood in urban Finland, feeling deeply estranged.

A tyrannical husband in the old country, who proves a brutally aloof father in the new, plays a crucial part in their plights. So, in a sinister yet also liberating way, do the cat and the snake. This dark debut has a daring, irrepressible spirit.