February 2005

Beth Dugan


Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo

When I was a child I had a book called If I Had a Lion. It was about what one would do if they had a lion as a pet, like you could go to the zoo, eat ice cream, pull the lion around in a red wagon, and hold the lion’s paw while watching scary movies. Troll: A Love Story, the debut novel by Finland’s Johanna Sinisalo, and winner of the Finlandia Prize for the best novel published in Finland, is the adult version of If I Had a Lion. It is the story of Angel, a young photographer in Finland who finds a baby troll one night as he stumbles home and, on impulse, takes it in.

In Sinisalo’s modern day Finland, Trolls exist but are rare and there is much myth and conjecture swirling around the species. While trying to care for his new, illegal, wild, yet charmingly humanistic pet that he names Pessi, Angel becomes obsessed. “…I stretch my hand out and slide it around his sweet, narrow, smooth, burning-hot waist. Pessi’s ears tremble… I’ve locked him in here. I’ve tried to capture part of the forest, and now the forest has captured me.” In trying to care for Pessi, Angel involves his downstairs neighbor, Palomina, an abused Filipina mail-order bride, and three other men in various ways, all ultimately illegal. But as Pessi grows, his wild animal tendencies do to and they ultimately become too much for Angel to handle.

Each section of the book is told in first person by one of the five main human characters. The voices of Angel and Palomina are the strongest because they are both filled with simple longing; Angel for a relationship with Pessi beyond pet and owner, and Palomina for freedom. The other three men’s voices are almost interchangeable because they are all interested in Angel sexually, and if the sections weren’t titled with their names, it would be difficult to tell the difference.

Interspersed with the narrative are segments of research Angel is doing on the nature of trolls, what they eat, behavior, etc., and it’s injected by way of scholarly journal articles, Internet sites, and books Angel finds while researching trolls. These serve to enhance the story by giving Pessi a humanistic quality and also conveying the inhumanities of mankind and are used to back up something Pessi is doing. When Pessi builds a perfect pyramid with film canisters, much like a small child might, there is an article on the next page about trolls being hunted almost to extinction. It underlines human’s horrible tendencies and highlights troll’s artistic ones.

The story Sinisalo builds around the premise that trolls exist is surprising and inventive but would have been stronger if there was more of Pessi and Angel, less research and squabbling men. Some of the chapters are two or three sentences long, and at the end, they show only one action or thought to build suspense. The suspense is there but is choppy and feels manipulative as in a section titled “Ecke” that reads only, “The key turns in the lock.”

With wit, humor, and biting insight Sinisalo is telling the love story of a very tame man and a very wild animal but more importantly, is asking the questions “What is humanity? What makes us human?” We are shown through the human relationships, power, greed, lust, manipulation, kindness and love; all traits “animals” are not supposed to possess. Because of the vulnerability Sinisalo allows her heroes Angel and Pessi to have, she is successful at comparing humans to animals and showing the reader the best and worst traits of each.

Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo
Grove Press
ISBN: 0802141293
240 Pages