NOT BEFORE SUNDOWN by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by Herbert Lomas (BOOK REVIEW)
“’Definition always presupposes its opposite,’ I say to the woman in the camouflaged combat suit. She’s trying to get me to converse, though what I most long for is just to blunt my faculties here in the Café Bongo buzz and stop myself feeling any more pain. ‘Define the word “normal”, and you have to define “abnormal”. Define “humanity”, then you have to define what humanity is not.’”
“They’re on their way back and doing what the sparrow 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.”
Johanna Sinisalo’s debut novel Not Before Sundown won the prestigious Finlandia prize for literature in its native language, then won the James Tiptree, Jr prize after being translated into English. This gives some indication of the quality of this extraordinary book. Set in Sinisalo’s home town of Tampere in the west of Finland, the novel takes place in a world in which the trolls of Finnish mythology were discovered to be a species of animal in 1907, dubbed Felipithecus trollius. The novel tells the tale of a young gay photographer who finds a baby troll outside his flat and takes it in and nurtures it back to health. Sinisalo combines Finnish mythology with a sharply realised depiction of the modern city, in a stunningly inventive exploration of the perspective of the outsider and humanity’s fraught relationship with the nonhuman world. Strikingly original, fantastically weird and deeply unsettling, Not Before Sundown is a masterpiece of the Finnish Weird and a welcome addition to the New Weird canon.
Angel finds a strange, small creature being set upon by thugs outside his flat. Rescuing it and bringing it into his flat, he is surprised to discover that it is a troll, a rare endangered species. Searching through the internet, newspapers, journals and folklore, Angel tries to discover all the information he needs to keep the young troll alive. But the troll soon begins to exert its influence over other aspects of Angel’s life. The troll’s musky pheromones cover Angel’s clothes, making him irresistible to all those around him, but as in the fairy tales Angel has been investigating, such strange powers come with a price.
Not Before Sundown shows us the modern city through the perspective of the outsiders. The novel focuses on Tampere’s gay subculture, the artist community, and mail-order brides. All these people exist in the same city as the mainstream society that ostracises them, but experience a different city, one marked out by lines of communication interpretable only to those in the know. Angel, Dr Spiderman a vet who is his ex-lover, Ecke who works at the gay bar, and the art director Martes who is using Angel’s sexual attraction to him to exploit him, can read these rules which other people cannot see. Similarly Palomita, the mail-order bride brought into the country by a man living in Angel’s block of flats, exists outside of the understanding of mainstream society. All of them become caught up in the erotic pull of the troll pheromones, another secret language of scents readable to those who know. The novel likens the secret city of the trolls, the imaginary world of fairy tales that exists at a remove from everyday life, to the city as experienced by these outsiders.
The novel is constructed from intense, short pieces of first person narratives, interspersed with fictionalised texts. These texts, excerpts form imaginary nature journals, newspaper articles, folk tales and myths, all provide context about the importance of trolls to the Finnish imaginary. Some of them are lightly fictionalised, showing how and where the world of the book diverges from our reality, whilst others highlight the demonic aspect of trolls in myths and legends. Thus, whilst the novel conceptualises trolls as animals, a part of the natural world, it still suffuses them with a supernatural aura. Sinisalo’s trolls straddle the boundary between rationality and superstition. As much as the scientific articles insist that the troll can be rationalised and understood, categorised and neatly folded away, the myths and folk tales continuously warn that the troll is a creature borne out of the darkness of the human psyche. This is reflected in the troll, who Angel names Pessi after one of these legends. Angel thinks that he can use the scientific literature and Dr Spiderman’s veterinary knowledge to safely keep the troll as a kind of pet, even as Pessi’s pheromones are manipulating his behaviour and that of everyone around him. In the end, Angel realises just how profoundly he has misunderstood Pessi.
The novel portrays a struggle between our modern, technological lifestyle and the environment we are casually destroying. Even though decimated by global warming and deforestation, Sinisalo’s book argues that we can never escape the mythic forests of our primeval mind. Not Before Sundown shows us that, however we may try to rationalise away the natural world and neatly compartmentalise it as something subservient to us, the natural world remains something profoundly unknowable to us, something with agency and its own agenda. The trolls encroaching on the city of Tampere represent both the return of the mythic knowledge we have suppressed and the natural world we wrongly believe we have mastered. As with Angel and Pessi, Not Before Sundown invites us to return to that forest, which always lies waiting for us.