Johanna Sinisalo #WITMonth

It shouldn’t have taken much guessing to realize that my post today would be about Johanna Sinisalo. What’s not to like: she’s Finnish, she’s feminist, and she’s a damn good writer. Also she has a mask named after her in Mythago Wood, which is about as unique an honor as you can get. I am lucky enough to have just been sent a review copy of her most recently translated novel: Blood of Angels. I’ll be writing about that once I’ve had time to read it.

In advance of that, you can find a review of her Birdbrain, which Sam Jordison wrote for me at Salon Futura, here. And finally, here’s the review that I wrote of her Tiptree-winning novel, Not Before Sundown (Troll in the USA). The review first appeared in Emerald City #102, with a cover date of February 2004.

Last year’s Eurocon was in Finland. Michael Swanwick was a Guest of Honor and he came back enthusing about a book called Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo. Entirely separately I had been recommended the book by a Finnish reader. This sounded very promising, and it was.

Of course the book’s reputation should speak for itself. It is Sinisalo’s first novel, but it won the prestigious Finlandia Prize, which is for the best novel of any type in Finnish (and is worth around €26,000). This is a serious accolade, approximately equivalent to China Miéville winning the Booker Prize. Wouldn’t happen in the UK. Sinisalo also manages to win the Atorox Prize, which is for Finnish SF&F, with almost Langfordian regularity. This suggests that she is seriously good, and it suggests correctly.

The plot of Not Before Sundown revolves around a photographer called Mikael who finds an injured animal near his apartment and takes it in to nurse it. The animal is a troll, a rare Finnish species that may or may not be distantly related to the yeti and sasquatch. It is bipedal, but covered in black fur with a short, tufted tail and much thicker hair around the head. It is a predator. The description rather reminded me of Wolverine in The X-Men.

The book has three separate strands to it. The first is exploration of the idea of trolls as a real species: how and why they might have evolved, and what their lifestyle might be. The second trawls through Finnish folklore for information about trolls, which may be simply mythological but may also give answers to the scientific questions (Sinisalo gives an interesting explanation as to why trolls are said to turn to stone in the sun). And finally we have Mikael’s story, in which the obvious physical reality of the troll meshes with its mythological role as a creature of darkness. It doesn’t help that the troll appears to give off powerful pheromones that drive humans sex-crazy.

His troll’s like a shred of night torn from the landscape and smuggled inside. It’s a sliver of tempestuous darkness, a black angel, a nature spirit.

Can you tame darkness?

Perhaps you can if, to start off, it’s very, very young, helpless enough, in bad shape…

One of night’s small cubs.

In amongst this, Sinisalo weaves an interesting story about gay men. This isn’t exactly an area I know much about, but the sex scenes seem far more convincing to me than those in the Slash-influenced Fall of the Kings. Plus there is a very neat side-plot where Mikael’s imprisonment of the wild troll in his apartment is contrasted with the behavior of one of his neighbors who has purchased a Filipina bride. All in all it is a very complex book that packs a lot into under 250 pages. It also has a rather experimental feel to it that reminded me of Angela Carter and Italo Calvino.

So yeah, score one for Finland. This is a really good book that, with its mix of science and mythology and personal relationships, is right in the middle of the current fashion for genre bending. And it is available in English translation, so you have no excuse for not getting hold of it.