Troll – A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo; Copyright 2000 by Johanna Sinisalo; English translation copyright by Herbert Lomas, 2003; 278 pp., paperback

ABOUT TROLLS –There is a whole body of memes about trolls. There are cute troll dolls, like in the 2016 animated movie, Trolls, and the more “realistic” trolls, hairy, ferocious, living in forests, and confined by the emissions of electricity pylons, that feature in the 2010 Norwegian “found footage” film Trollhunter. For the Trollhunter film’s final scene, a clip of former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg speaking about an oil field outside Norway called the “Troll Field”, was edited to create the appearance of him admitting to the existence of trolls.”

“Madam, I’m afraid he’s come down with a bad case of Trolls.”

If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. Anecdotal evidence shows that more than half of Icelanders believe in elves and “hidden people”, elf-like “Huldufólk” who live amongst the lava rocks, or at least don’t deny their existence since it is considered bad luck to do so.

Similarly, there are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. Every country in the world has its mythical beings, and so long as people have story-telling and imagination, that will continue, helped along by mass communication and imaging methods. The Finns, in particular, have trolls.

A love story around a pair of hairy legs

One of my favourite authors, Sjón, recommended Sinisalo’s work, so I got it and read it though it was first published in 2000. I got the idea that the troll in the novel was a metaphor for the strange or the foreign elements amongst us in society, and how we tend to reject those. This concept is even more relevant now than it was at the time of the book’s first publication. When faced with any non-conforming new being in our neck of the woods, we are likely to be first dubious, then aggressive.

This novel is sub-titled “a love story”, and that should warn readers. That, and the hairy little hands (feet?), sticking out of a pair of pants on the front cover! This, dear reader, promises to be interesting.

Sinsalo’s modern masterpiece, which was also was her debut novel, took a long time to hit the mainstream market,  and be fully appreciated, but it will be, probably forever, one of those books that stands alone, on its own considerable merit, and cannot fit into only one genre.

Sinisalo won the prestigious Finlandia Prize for literature for it, in 2000, published under the title Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (translated as Not before sundown). In 2004, when it was republished as Troll — A Love Story for the American market, it won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for gender-focused Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Finnish writing style

Despite being translated into 13 languages, including Spanish, Japanese and Lithuanian, in English the novel retains the markers of Finnish fiction, so well done to translator Herbert Lomas. These are: a crisp, somewhat austere use of language overall combined with instances of lyricism; rationality contrasted with the eccentric; social criticism and themes of loneliness and rootlessness; some use of rhythmic metre – for instance, the repetition of key phrases; a focus on Finnish, not Swedish characters and settings; and a mixing of genre conventions. Sometimes an entire chapter is only one line or a few lines – particularly when it is a critical moment. It is with good reason that Sinisalo is called the “Queen of Finnish Weird”.

The name of the book is from a Finnish song Päivänsäde ja Menninkäinen by Reino Helismaa, and recorded by Tapio Rautavaara, which has the lyrics: “Kas, menninkäinen ennen päivänlaskua ei voi milloinkaan olla päällä maan” (translated as “A troll cannot ever stay above the ground before sundown”). 

Not typical Sci-Fi

It is, I would say, for adult readers who can take a bit of a shock to the system. The main character, “Angel” (“Mikael”), is gay and the novel opens with him being rejected by the object of his affections while at a restaurant. The fact that he is gay has nothing really to do with the rest of the plot, I think. It just takes a few pages for the reader to put A and B together and get the hang of the characters, especially since Angel also looks as girlishly pretty as an angel. Angry and sad and on his way home, he passes a group of rough guys who are kicking something on the pavement – a “juvenile” troll, as it turns out. Very factually, a “juvenile” is a term in developmental Biology to describe a young, not fully developed animal.

Throughout, Sinisalo does not use any of the usual mechanisms of Science Fiction or Fantasy. She has no strange terminology, no time shifts, no unreliable narrators and alternative histories. She does not mention fairies, spirits or imaginary kingdoms, or invented objects or concepts. The story is set in the now, not in the future. She places the troll, a mythical creature, as squarely in reality as any animal in the home. She includes references from history books, Biology handbooks and scientific journals, which Angel, the finder of this creature, reads because he is simply practically concerned with his find’s diet – what does a troll eat? I checked some of the references, not all, and those I checked were real, not made up, such as the references to The Unkown Soldier by Väino Linna, and the song Goldwing and Troll or Silkkinen ja Peikot, by Anni Swan.

Angel is at a loss as to how to deal with the troll: What is it and how do you “keep” it? From both the behavior of the troll and the factual references, it becomes clear that this is no animal. There is something else going on, something that creeps up on the reader and whacks you between the eyes when you eventually realize it. Angel, when he first sees the malnourished, cowering little troll, has the following reaction:

“He weakly raises his head from the crouching position for a moment, opens his eyes, and I can finally make out what’s there. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I know right away that I want it.” (p.6)

The plot thickens

Illustration of Pessi by Jenny Wiik, from Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo, for Archipelacon, the Nordic SF & Fantasy Convention 2015.

Wanting is one thing. Keeping is entirely a different matter. The troll is undeniably human-like. It is intriguing, and beautiful, and Sinisalo describes it in such a lyrical, delicate manner that the reader wants very much for it to live, to get well. This is one of the chapters in the novel that is only half a page long, a technique that focuses the reader’s attention on a single incident:

“It looks at me like a puppy-dog, but there are live coals in its orange eyes. It’s lying curled up into a ball. I go to the bedside gingerly and hold my breath as I sit on the edge of the bed beside it and observe its slender, heaving black sides, its helpless but sinewy being. Suddenly its paw straightens out. Its long, supple fingers and fierce nails come toward me, and I almost snatch my hand away but don’t, I don’t, and its fingers wrap around my wrist for a moment; its hot slender paw touches me for a fleeting moment, and my eyes fill with tears. Three days have gone by, and it simply isn’t eating.” (p.31)

Ah, who wouldn’t want to have a troll like this in the house? It’s like owning a piece of magic.

In an effort to feed the troll, Angel involves other people like his neighbour, the down-beaten internet bride “Palomita”; “Dr. Spiderman”, a caustic-tongued veterinarian; his former lover, “Martti”, a powerful art director and Angel’s boss; and “Ecke”, who is in love with Angel. The novel’s point of view shifts between each of these characters. Each responds differently to the clues they pick up about the alien creature in Angel’s flat. And “it” recovers, and like a phoenix, becomes stronger and more beautiful and smarter by the day.

Angel is doing what humans have done since time immemorial – if they see something they find really beautiful, they want it for themselves. But is that the only reason?

“So what does the troll mean to me? A protégé, somewhat like a pigeon with a broken wing? Or an exotic pet? Or maybe a stranger on a short visit, rather oddly behaved but altogether captivating, who’ll be leaving one day when the time’s right? Or what?” (p.39)

The troll gets a name, “Pessi”, and a gender, a male. Pessi is more than a foundling by now. In at least the first half of the book, Pessi is so sick he almost dies, and Angel cannot figure out what’s wrong with him. But then Pessi recovers and grows strong: “…he moves about like oil, as if made of silk”, poops everywhere in the flat to rile Angel, and guards Angel jealously. He learns, and he hunts. He smells other males’ smells on Angel.

Moreover, Angel loves Pessi and he knows that, in the reverse of “Baloo the Bear” having to leave “Mowgli” to get back to the man village in The Jungle Book, this feral “person” will have to go back to the wilds. Worse, Mikael is hypnotized, and as time goes on, becomes ever more base in his actions and plans to keep Pessi with him. Who is the animal here?

The conundrum of love

And there, dear reader, is the very problem. What is love?, asks Sinisalo from us. What do we love, and why and what will we do if we have something we truly love? Will we give up our lives for that person, that thing or that cause? Society sets limits on what we can and cannot love, sometimes with good reason. But if something is not categorized, or does not officially exist, is perhaps a figment of imagination – a fiction – can one still love it? Is love real if it is one-sided and there is no common language with which to connect intellectually?

“His small firm muscles function with extreme precision and unselfconscious seductiveness. For minutes on end, with his head on one side, he follows the movements of my hand as I operate the mouse of my computer. I’m churning and on fire.” (p.122)

The whole situation is untenable of course. With love comes desire. Then it gets creepy. The reader reads on, with a sinking sense of approaching doom. And the climax of the book is indeed a terrible shocker.

Sinisalo quotes the song Goldwing and Troll, a real song, sung here on Youtube by famous Finnish actor and musician Tapio Rautavaara, whose music also featured on my all-time favourite movie of all time, Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past. (English lyrics at the bottom of the page.)

Päivänsäde ja menninkäinen sung by Tapio Rautavaara

The words, about a ray of sunshine and the troll that falls in love with her, ends sadly. The troll thinks: ‘Why is one the child of light, while the other loves the night?’” (p.143)

Considering what Angel does with Pessi in order to get Martti to love him, it got me wondering who is the child of the light and who is the child of the night. In terms of dire consequences, much more happens than just Angel finding Pessi. The plot is complicated by the narrative from points of view of people who “come to a bad end” so to speak. When you die, after all, you think no more, you have nothing more to say. The text, on these pages, just end, with one-liners. One’s imagination does the rest.

And as for Angel, you have to read for yourself. It will take your breath away.

As Dr. Spiderman thinks to himself:

“They [the trolls] are on their way back and doing what the sparrows and pigeons and rats do – living alongside us, whether we like it or not. They’re eating our leftovers, they’re even stealing a little, and sleeping in our abandoned buildings and barns, as in the tales. They’re pushing out their own territory into ours, little by little, so we’ll not even notice until they’re already in our midst.” (p.267).

Do you recognize anyone like that? Perhaps someone sleeping on the street downtown, the person with their hand out, sitting in a heap, the person who sounds and looks as foreign as a troll amongst city folk.

The meaning of the novel

Consider then, what you would do if you love someone like that. Blaise Pascal famously said:

“Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. On le sent en mille choses. C’est le cœur qui sent Dieu, et non la raison. Voilà ce que c’est que la foi parfaite, Dieu sensible au cœur.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées, IV.277, p. 458 in Léon Brunschvicg (ed.), Blaise Pascal: Pensées et Opuscules (Paris: Classiques Hachette, 1961).

It has been translated many times, and interpreted in many different ways, but reads in the Project Gutenberg translation: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.”

Whether by “heart” Pascal meant subconsciousness, and by “reason”, logic or consciousness, it is true, at least for me, that love – that what you feel – like faith, is often without logic, reason, or rationale. It is what it is. Sinisalo here demonstrated perfectly that love happens in the oddest of places, to the most unlikely people. She also demonstrated that the world is a cruel place to people who are different, who love differently, who are either lovers of trolls, or trolls themselves. Almost in negation of all the proof, literary, anecdotal, historical and scientific, about the existence of trolls that she inserts into the novel, it is the love that Angel feels for Pessi that drives him to his ultimate decision. No reason. Just the heart. What can I say about this novel? It’s haunting, marvellous, really refreshingly different. Go read it. At least before you kick the bucket.

About the author

Johanna Sinisalo by Katja-Losonen, 2013
Johanna Sinisalo by Katja-Losonen, 2013

Johanna Sinisalo, born 1958, is known for her Science Fiction and Fantasy writing, though this novel is not typical of the genres. Her first published short stories, Kilometripylväät (“Kilometre Signs”) and Jäinen kaupunki (“Glacier Town”), appeared together in the Finnish Original Anthology Vuosirengas 74. She has since published more than 40 stories, seven times winning the Finnish Atorox award for the year’s best short Sci-Fi. Her first story in English, Baby Doll, was nominated for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. She has also written many comics and graphic novel scripts, including for a period the Moomin comic, and many television dramas. She wrote the storyline for the Finnish satiric Sci-Fi film Iron Sky (2012). Her novels and non-fiction include (and please be aware that they have different titles in translations into many languages and also different cover designs):

  • Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (Published by Tammi, 2000, English title: Not Before Sundown, also known as Troll – A Love Story)
  • Sankarit (Published by Tammi, 2003, English title: Heroes)
  • Lasisilmä (Published by Teos, 2006, English title: The Glass Eye or The Glass-eye)
  • Linnunaivot (Published by Teos, 2008, English title: Birdbrain)
  • Enkelten verta (Published by Teos, 2011, translated as The Blood of Angels, published in 2014)
  • Auringon ydin, (Published by Teos, 2013, translated as The Core of the Sun, published in 2016, translated by Lola Rogers. In 2017 the novel was voted onto the BSFA Awards 2016 longlist.)

She has also co-authored, with Hannu Rajaniemi, It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction, published 2013, and The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy (Dedalus Literary Fantasy Anthologies), published 2015, translated/co-authored by David Hackston. An interesting English overview on her literary career is here:


Sing along in English with Tapio Rautavaara

ORIGINAL FINNISH LYRICS TO “Päivänsäde ja menninkäinen” – “Goldwing and the Troll”TRANSLATION – My version which rhymes and fits with the metre of the song by Tapio Rautavaara on Youtube (link in the post)
“Aurinko kun päätti retken,
siskoistaan jäi jälkeen hetken
päivänsäde viimeinen.
Hämärä jo mailleen hiipi,
päivänsäde kultasiipi
aikoi juuri lentää eestä sen.
When the sun was slowly setting,
one last ray was left a’glinting:
Goldwing left her sisters there.
In the dusk that was descending
she saw a little troll awending
out of his all darkened cavern lair.
Vaan menninkäisen pienen näki vastaan tulevan;
se juuri oli noussut luolastaan.
Kas, menninkäinen ennen päivän laskua ei voi
milloinkaan elää päällä maan.
He saw the lovely Goldwing,
like the sunshine on the ground,
but little trolls in daytime can’t be found.
Forever they are doomed to live in darkness and the night,
and never see the daytime light.
He katselivat toisiansa menninkäinen rinnassansa
tunsi kuumaa leiskuntaa.
Sanoi: “Poltat silmiäni, mutten ole eläissäni
nähnyt mitään yhtä ihanaa!
His heart did melt, there where he hid,
he wanted more than he ever did,
to have the Goldwing for his own.
“Oh come with me and be my bride,
and live forever by my side,
to stay inside my mountain home!”
Ei haittaa vaikka loisteesi mun sokeaksi saa
on pimeässä helppo vaeltaa.
Käy kanssani, niin kotiluolaan näytän sulle tien
ja sinut armaakseni vien!
But Goldwing flitted through the dell,
she said “I love your gold
and would be happy with a lover bold.
But even with your passion I would die amidst the dark –
I wake up with the morning lark.”
“Mut säde vastas: “Peikko kulta,
pimeys vie hengen multa,
enkä toivo kuolemaa.
Pois mun täytyy heti mennä,
ellen kohta valoon lennä
niin en hetkeäkään elää saa!
Then Goldwing slipped into the sunset,
the little troll stood there and wept
– while the moon rose slowly in the sky –
imagining if ever there,
was somebody who really cared,
or knew what love was all about and why.
 “Ja niin lähti kaunis päivänsäde, mutta vieläkin
kun menninkäinen yksin tallustaa,
hän miettii miksi toinen täällä valon lapsi on
ja toinen yötä rakastaa.
He pricked his hairy pointy ears
and wiped away his tears
and realized that life is what it is:
“Some of us are born to live as children of the light
and some are born into the night.”
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