REVIEW: Not Before Sundown aka Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo, translated by Herbert Lomas

Not Before Sundown cover art by Nick Pearson

It’s the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen. I know straight away that I want it.

 This weird and wonderful novel unfolds like a crazy spiderweb or a crack across a windowpane, shattering in unexpected places. Mikael, nick-named Angel, is a childishly manipulative photographer who finds and adopts a troll cub. The consequences of this action spread insidiously to his ostensibly straight employer Martes; his ex-lover Dr. Spiderman; Ecke, holding a hopeless torch for Angel; and Palomita, a trafficked Filipino woman who lives in the flat below.

It is told in differing voices, with sometimes only a sentence to a page, and throughout there are newspaper articles, Scandinavian troll-tales and extracts from scientific studies into the Felipithecus trollius. By making trolls a scientifically acknowledged, though endangered, species, Johanna Sinisalo succeeds in creating a world that is barely a hair’s breadth away from our own.

A lot can happen in a hair’s breadth.

The presence of the troll cub unleashes a beautiful wave of wilderness bordering on savagery. It is a wild thing in a city; it does not belong. And its presence alone is enough to set the lives of those around it onto devastating collision courses, bringing all their dark and howling parts into the light.

I bit my nails to the quick; the characters worried about their jobs, their looks and their intrigues while I worried about their lives. I laughed often, sometimes in startled fear and sometimes just for joy at the absurdity. Pages later I’d be gasping and tense.

Fittingly, I finished it on a night when the moon was full, and the ending hit me like a gunshot it was so unexpected. I lay awake for much of the night while images of sleek black creatures, of desperation in an eye peering through a peephole in a door, of lies told for petty gain, and of exhausted limbs haunted me. In fact, much of the imagery is still haunting me now, a week and a half later.

Johanna Sinisalo has a real talent for unveiling human motive, and a scrumptiously idiosyncratic turn of phrase (though it is impossible to know how much of that is due to Herbert Lomas, the translator). This sharp fable snakes through the full range of human desires and revulsions, pitting them against something that is greater, darker, more primal: something that is moving ever closer all the time.

It’s the kind of story that makes the hindbrain sit up and pay attention, even if we’d rather it didn’t. It’s more comfortable to stay inside, in our air conditioned houses with our coffee tables and our comforts, pretending that the outside is not there, than to venture into the wilderness where we might be free. This book has been described as “A punk version of The Hobbit”. I think it’s more accurate to describe it as an adult evolution of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, except there is no warm dinner waiting at the end…

Completely and bizarrely brilliant.

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