It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
I know straight away that I want it.
Within a certain group of my friends, this novel is generally referred to - fondly - as "the gay troll book". And Johanna Sinisalo's Not Before Sundown (2000; translated from the Finnish by Herbert Lomas, 2003) is, indeed, about a man who embarks on a sexual relationship with a young male troll. I suspect most of you are now regarding this post through a decidedly sceptical squint and/or sidling swiftly away to another browser tab, but wait: Not Before Sundown is a strange and beautiful and funny exploration of folklore and sexuality in the darkly frozen north. In short, it's like nothing I've read before. Probably also like nothing I'll ever read again, although not for want of hoping.
The basic premise is easy enough to summarise: man meets troll, man and troll fall in something slightly too complex to call love, everyone around them freaks out.
Put another way: One evening, photographer Mikael - nicknamed "Angel" - is heading home after a much-anticipated but singularly unsuccessful date, "staggering and limping" with the emotional afterburn of being turned down by the man he longs for. "I'm licking my wound like a cat", he tells us, "my thought probes it like a loose tooth, inviting the dull sweet pain over and over again" - and I'm already in love with the viscerality of Sinisalo's narrative, the short sharp shocks of the prose. The choices in the figurative language - the repeated nods to embodied experiences and the violence of the natural world - also prove to be thematically important. It is at this moment of vulnerability, drunkenness and need that Mikael first encounters the troll, sick and weak after receiving a beating from some local youths; the sight of it takes his breath away, and so he takes it home.
This is, it should be said, a version of the world in which Finnish folklore regarding trolls is not myth but science: they are known to exist, although rarely seen. (They also pack quite a pheromone punch, as it turns out.)
Initially, Mikael denies or ignores the troll's gender - note the transition, in the passage quoted at the head of this post, from the "he" while Mikael believes the troll to be human, to "it" when he realises he is not - and despite his private, bald acknowledgement that he has "brought a wild beast into [his] home", he loses himself in a fascination with the creature that is part aesthetic, part pet-owner. The troll is a "a mere cub", possessed of a "full black mane" of hair, "reddish-orange feline eyes" and a tufted tail, but he has "the endearing ungainliness of all young animals" and weighs less than a child of a comparable size; when he wakes, and moves, Mikael is in raptures:
It walks on two legs, with a soft and supple lope: not like a human being, slightly bent forwards, its front paws stretched away from its sides - ah, on tiptoe, like a ballet dancer. I follow it and watch it bounce on to my bed, effortlessly, like a cat, as though gravity didn't exist - then curl up and go back to sleep again.
Mikael's mental probing is now turned upon his own motives, and soon he is using his camera - holding his feelings at arm's length - to explore the "visual grace" that he finds so captivating. Pessi, as Mikael calls him, is not like the fluffy trolls Mikael remembers from children's stories. His paroxysms of delight at the smell of fresh eggs - and the way he "slurps" them "neatly" - reminded me of Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings films; but, like Smeagol, Pessi is a capricious character with his own violent emotions. His tail, for example, is not bushy but a "lashing, tuft-ended snake, a trembling mood-antenna". There is something sensually compelling about all this, and Sinisalo does a pitch-perfect job of making us believe Mikael's growing attraction via the extravagant imagery of his first-person narration:
He seems to be reversing gravity. His total muscular capacity is enormous, considering his size. He moves about like oil, as if made of silk.
His eyes are full of nocturnal wildfire.
Another character describes Pessi as "a shred of night torn from the landscape and smuggled inside. It's a sliver of tempestuous darkness, a black angel, a nature spirit", and "One of night's small cubs", and there is a strong sense throughout that Pessi represents an incursion by raw, red nature into the elaborately civilised lives of Mikael and his neighbours.
Surrounding Mikael and his unfolding romance with the wild are a selection of characters who all have complicated relationships with their own sexuality, and who each get to offer us their perspective on events: partial, yes, but it is the partiality that is one of the novel's great strengths, the way that we learn of characters through the way they present their world to us. There is self-involved Martes, object of Mikael's rebuffed affection at the start of the novel, who enjoys the feeling of power he gets from others' thwarted desire for him, and who completely (and comically) misunderstands how Mikael's feelings change towards him with the arrival of Pessi.
Martes' flip side is Ecke, who loves Mikael from afar "to bits, until it hurts", but is painfully aware of the gulf between himself and the bohemian chic of Mikael's circle (and painfully unaware of where Mikael's attention is really directed). Like Mikael, in the passages Ecke narrates he couches lust in animal imagery; Mikael is, he reflects, "as far above me as a free-running lynx above a soon-to-be-skinned mink crouching in its cage with no weapons but its slipperiness and small but sharp teeth". Sinisalo invites us to relish the irony, I think, of just how unwittingly apposite Ecke's imaginings are.
Finally, there is Palomita, a Filipino woman stranded half a world away from home, who seems - from the bits and pieces mentioned in passing in her chapters - to have been trafficked into the grim marriage-slavery in which we encounter her, an abused near-prisoner in the flat below Mikael's. Palomita could have been a problematic cliche: helpless, exploited immigrant woman waiting to be saved by enlightened western man. But Sinisalo lets us hear her voice - her experiences, fears, and hopes - and gives her encounters with Mikael an overtone of farce that offsets her desperate idealisation of him as "a man with an angelically beautiful face and hair like a wheatfield in sunshine". Her potential saviour is, after all, hiding a troll in his flat, who is prone to causing noisy chaos:
"What on earth's going on there?"
Mikael breathes deeply twice. "I'm, ah, watching ... this video ... kind of experimental effort. Rather lurid effects right now."
"Oh? What genre?"
"Well, let's say... horror."
Mikael is a talisman for her, but it is Palomita who formulates her plan - or a series of plan, adapted as circumstances change - and acts upon the opportunity (unwittingly) provided by Mikael and his unusual new domestic arrangements. This reversal of how we might expect her story to go is signalled early on by the animal imagery that she applies to Mikael, which is striking in the unexpected power and gender dynamics it expresses:
But now I need Mikael, and so I bend towards him and sniff as softly as a horse sensing a shy filly. He's got to remember how much he wants to please me.
Mikael, not Palomita, is the filly. (I begin to wonder if another effect of Pessi's pheromones is to drive everyone around him to come up with ever more earthy, bestial metaphors.)
Likewise, for all that the early dynamic between Mikael and Pessi seems like it might be one of owner and pet, or rescuer and rescued, even when Pessi expresses vulnerability - clinging to Mikael's leg "with all four limbs" and making "a little mewing sound", mutely begging for Mikael's continued protection in the urban world so far from his forest home - he nonetheless looks at Mikael "straight into my face, so intensely it's like a blow". Ultimately it is Mikael who is, at the end of the novel, once again undone by desire - but this time, a desire that is met and matched and returned in force. "I've locked him in here", he reflects; "I've tried to capture part of the forest, and now the forest has captured me."