The Finns achieved independence on December 6, 1917 – 100 years ago. To celebrate with Finland, we republish a review of a beautiful novel Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo.
Reviewed by Geneva Melzack
Peter Owen Publishers, London, 2003, 236pp, £12.50, t/p, ISBN 0720611717
Not Before Sundown has also been published under the title Troll: A Love Story. The alternative title is, in some ways, a literal description of the book. The first chapter opens with photographer Angel stumbling across a sick creature near his home. It is a troll, and Angel takes it back to his flat and nurses it back to health. The rest of the book explores the consequences of having a wild troll living in close proximity to and interacting with human beings (and whether or not some of those interactions constitute a love story is perhaps a matter of interpretation).
The two prizes Not Before Sundown has found favour with reflect two major aspects of the novel. The Finlandia Prize reflects the book’s roots in Finnish culture and folklore, while the James Tiptree Jnr Award reflects the way it explores issues of identity and sexuality. The best way into both aspects of the novel is through its structure. Not Before Sundown utilises a very unusual narrative technique. The story unfolds through a series of relatively short (a couple of pages or less, and sometimes no more than one or two lines) first person narratives, as well as ‘extracts’ from texts on Finnish folklore, newspaper reports, and various other sources dealing with the history, biology and mythology of trolls, some real (most of the folklore extracts are genuine), some not. Thinking about these extracts and the role they play in the story is a route into understanding the book’s Finnishness, as well as the place it inhabits in the field of fantastic literature.
The purpose of the extracts is to explain what trolls are and how they have related to humans through recent history. The combination of fake scientific and genuine mythological sources of information on trolls convincingly creates an alternate history in which Finnish troll traditions are not merely folklore, but are in fact based on the reality of a large native carnivore that didn’t officially get ‘discovered’ by scientists until 1907. In Not Before Sundown Sinisalo has given us a science fiction explanation for what is usually taken to be a fantasy creature.
The insertion of these extracts into the text could have felt like a series of interruptions, but Sinisalo manages to avoid this since the narrative structure of the book is pretty fractured already. This fracturing is due to the frequent switches in narrative perspective. The sections of the novel which aren’t extracts (which is the majority of them) are written in the first person, most frequently from the perspective of Angel, but there are four other characters who also get their turn to tell bits of the story at various points throughout the novel. This constant switching of narrative perspectives gives us a route into understanding the second side to Not Before Sundown, the side that deals with identity and gender and sexuality.
That the story is built from a multiplicity of perspectives suggests that the characters identities are also complex and multiple. We come to know the character of Angel both from inside his own head, through his own first person narrative, and also through the eyes of the other characters. In part because it turns out that humans can be affected by trolls’ sexual pheromones, all Angel’s interactions have some sort of sexual element to them, and in that respect the identity that’s being explored through the multiplicities of narrative perspective here is a sexual identity as well as a more complete personal identity.
Angel’s public sexual identity as a gay man – as seen through the eyes of the other characters – is shown to be a social identity, an identity rooted in Angel’s interactions with other people (and in particular with other gay men). In contrast, Angel’s private perspective on his sexuality shows us how his actual attractions – or rather, his actual physical sexual responses – are attractions that cannot translate into a public sexual identity. This is partly because the effect the troll’s pheromones have on him fall into the realm of social taboo (bestiality is a big no no, regardless of folk tales about humans who fall in love with trolls) but also partly because there is no social signification for the hormonal and physiological responses he experiences in the troll’s presence. It’s not that a public sexual identity is socially unacceptable, it’s that there is no public sexual identity that fits Angel’s private experiences.
These two aspects of the novel, the folklore mythos and the exploration of sexual identity, are all rolled together in the symbolic figure of the troll. The troll is a wild creature. It is untamed. It is this wildness that humans make into mythologies, telling tales to convince ourselves that nature is predictable and comprehensible. Folk stories are a way of taming the natural world by naming it, structuring it, shaping and defining it with language and narrative. Similarly, our sexual desires are often thought to represent our base natural instincts, and the construction of sexual identities is also about naming those desires, taming them with stories about how human sexualities work. The troll is the wildness of nature and sexuality embodied. He has stepped out of the wilderness into the constructed world of urban Finland, and the only way he can be dealt with and understood is by taming him as story.