Humans and oil are not separate entities. Fossil fuels are the invisible basis of the economy and society and, since the 19th century, we have been living in a period known as fossil capitalism. Oil and its derivatives have penetrated us as people and our lives. This is the starting point of Emma Puikkonen’s novel about oil – the black mirror of humanity. The magical beauty of this novel is that it bites into an enormous subject and forces the reader to think. Its black, shiny surface reflects themes eternal and current, such as oil’s relationship to nature and the environment, human courage and the role of women in different situations.
Events are relayed in episodes over the course of some 150 years. We follow three strong female characters with connections to each other. The first person is Lotte Teer, who spends her youth in Amsterdam during the 1973 oil crisis. She later develops a career at Shell, advancing to the position of climate change consultant, where for decades she is complicit in obscuring the facts about the environmental damage of oil production. Ida Tarbell, a pioneer in investigative journalism who was born at the end of the 19th century, takes the reader to the oil fields in the southern US states, the birthplace of oil capitalism. The discovery of black gold sparks an oil rush and awakens dreams of riches, but prospects quickly dim as the industry is monopolised and we realise how irrevocably oil is changing us. “Man and rubbish begin to mix, they overlap and grow into each other,” Ida notes in the novel. Astrid Fuglesang is a young eco-activist at the end of the 2020s, when the status of oil as the basis of energy production is being seriously questioned. As part of a do-it-yourself environmental revolution, she sabotages an active oil platform. She is found out and forced to hide on a platform that is on its way to be scrapped. Here she meets Lotte Teer, who is torn by internal conflict.
The fourth character is oil. Appearing as an almost divine element, its history spanning millions of years, it flows as a striking reflective poem in parallel with the rest of the text. Oil is compressed solar energy that flows in underground cavities, pours out, and meanders into people’s veins. It is “life in the form of such a thick grease that one is forced to submit in order to stand out”.
Emma Puikkonen (born 1974) is one of Finland’s foremost contemporary prose writers. Her works explore highly topical themes and phenomena, of which climate change has recently become the most important. She is a trained drama instructor who also teaches the literary arts and theatre. Her work Europpolaiset unet (2016) was nominated for the Finlandia and Tulenkantaja Prizes, and an earlier novel, Lupaus (2019), met with critical acclaim. Her novel Musta peili (2021) (“The black mirror”, not published in English) was nominated for the Runeberg Prize.