They Know Not What They Do

Reading material

English edition
Finnish edition

Original title: He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät

Published: 2014

Publisher: Tammi

Class/genre: Literary

Pages: 559


Finlandia Prize winner 2014

A sweeping, multilayered story of family conflicts, the ethics of science and the search for identity in an impersonal society.

When professor Joe Chayefski’s neuroscience lab in Baltimore is attacked by animal rights activists, he doesn’t connect the dots at first. But when he receives a phone call from Alina, his Finnish ex-wife, he begins to gradually realize that the threats on his career and new family are connected to Samuel, the son he left behind in Finland two decades ago. Joe soon learns that his son’s life has gone badly astray, and that Samuel has devoted himself to extreme animal rights activism. Samuel is now somewhere in the United States, but neither Alina nor the authorities know his exact location. Joe realizes that he has to take action to protect his wife and two daughters from his estranged son, by any means necessary.

By depicting its three main characters in an intense struggle to understand an increasingly confusing world, They Know Not What They Do offers readers both piercing psychological acumen and a striking dystopian satire of a neuro-digitalized Western society in which nothing is private and everything is for sale.


FINLAND, Tammi (Original publisher)
CHINA, China International Radio Press
FRANCE, Fayard
LITHUANIA, Alma Littera
NETHERLANDS, Signatuur/A.W. Bruna
POLAND, Foksal
VIETNAM, Chibooks

”A page-turner”
–  Otago Daily Times, New Zealand

”A contemporary novel that doesn’t lose sight of perennial dilemmas.”
– Kirkus, USA

”Ultimately, this hugely ambitious work of contemporary realism offers a dramatic warning about the influence of digital culture.”
– Booklist, USA

”Valtonen’s grip on plot and character is so masterful that his storytelling easily contains his restless speculation about influences on how we live now and where we might end up as our old value systems begin to crumble.” World Literature Today, USA

”Classy and engrossing.”  Daily Mail, UK

”…smart, slightly futuristic, nicely plotted… ” – Mail on Sunday, UK

”A hugely ambitious book. Literary fiction meets sci-fi meets thriller in a gripping exploration of animal rights, the light and dark of new technologies, international academia, and the dynamics within modern families. Excellent.” – Will Dean, author of Dark Pines

”An engaging and fascinating exploration of the difficulties of modern parenting in the face of social media and technological advancements.” – Guy Bolton, author of The Pictures

”The novel addresses a multitude of themes wrapped up in a carefully plotted story with a thread of suspense running through it… The organisations whose tentacles are deeply embedded in so many aspects of our lives are unsettlingly well drawn – step forward Google – and the plotting is cleverly executed.”– A Life in Books blog, UK

“For a long time we have wished for a bold literary curveball – a big, new, Finnish contemporary novel. And here it is…[They Know Not What They Do] doesn’t crystallize into just one novel; at the core of its narrative are the morals of scientific research, the disappearance of privacy and the commoditization of life, as well as the dismantling of the nuclear family, the internal tensions of a newly formed family, and the growing pains of children who ultimately turn against their parents…the end result is a comprehensive picture of our time and a diagnosis of what is ailing this brave new world – nothing more, nothing less.”
– Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Finland

“A chilling story of a world in which the supply of information grows at a dizzying speed, but people’s understanding of one another does not improve; our actions are directed by suspicions, a lack of awareness and primitive instincts. Jussi Valtonen describes, with a great sense of perception, the culture shock experienced by a leading American researcher in the cold and inward-turning Finland. He also cleverly weaves together both large and small current events. The skilfully woven plot thickens subtly and inevitably towards the finale that in its fatefulness resembles a classic tragedy. They Know Not What They Do is an arresting study of the relationship between science and ethics, and of people’s inability to communicate with one another.”
– Finlandia Prize 2014 jury

“The novel addresses people’s inability to communicate and understand one another in a real way.”
– MTV broadcasting network, Finland

“…Valtonen creates a frightening dystopian suspense, which keeps the readers spellbound all the while inciting them to reflect on ethics and moral.”
– L’Obs magazine, France 

A portrait of our society and a futuristic thriller, the Finnish writer Jussi Valtonen draws a picture of our time as brilliant as it is chilling.”
– L’Express magazine, France

“Contemporary literature simply doesn’t get better than this. A stunning work.” – Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Finland “An ambitious, nuanced plea for compassion.”
– De Standaard newspaper, Belgium

“One of the most extraordinary books of recent times.”
– Könyv utca literary blog, Hungary


Jussi Valtonen

Jussi Valtonen (b. 1974) is an author and psychologist from Helsinki. He has studied neuropsychology in the United States and screenwriting in the UK, and has also worked as a science reporter. He has written three novels and a short story collection.

Carried by Wings (Siipien kantamat, Tammi 2007) was given second place in Bonnier’s novel competition, and received a warm reception from both critics and bloggers. In 2014 Valtonen was awarded the Finlandia Prize, the country’s highest-profile literary award, for They Know Not What They Do (He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät, Tammi 2014).


Jussi Valtonen

Carried by Wings

2007, Literary

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