Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Troll

A Love Story

by Johanna Sinisalo

“[An] imaginative and engaging novel of urban fantasy. . . . Overlapping narrative voices nicely underscore the moral of Sinisalo’s ingeniously constructed fable: The stuff of ancient legend shadows with rather unnerving precision the course of unloosed postmodern desire.” —Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date April 01, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4129-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date May 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4737-1
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Winner of the Finlandia Award, Finland’s most prestigious literary award, Johanna Sinisalo’s U.S. debut novel is a fanciful tale of a fairy-tale animal who reveals the beast in ourselves.

An enchanting novel that has become an international sensation, Troll recalls the unforgettable charm and otherworldly zoology of Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home and Steven Sherill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break. Everyone has their rough nights, but things have clearly taken a turn for the surreal when Angel, a young photographer, ends a night of drinking and heartbreak by finding a group of drunken teenagers in the courtyard of his apartment building, taunting a young troll. Trolls are known in Scandinavian mythology as wild beasts like the werewolf, but this troll is just a small, wounded creature. Angel decides to offer it a safe haven for the night.

In the morning Angel thinks he dreamed it all. But he finds the troll alive, well, and drinking from his toilet. What does one do with a troll in the city? Angel begins researching frantically. Officially classified by scientists in 1907, trolls have long been thought practically extinct. Angel searches the Internet, folklore, nature journals, and newspaper clippings—even calling a veterinarian ex-boyfriend to find out what it will eat—but his research doesn’t tell him that trolls exude pheromones that smell like a Calvin Klein aftershave and that this has a profound aphrodisiac effect on all those around him. Shooting an assignment for the ultrahip “stalker” brand jeans, Angel finds that Martes, the advertising art director who previously jilted him, suddenly finds him irresistible, and in general he has gone from being the brokenhearted to the heartbreaker. As Angel’s life changes beyond recognition, it becomes clear that the troll is familiar with the man’s most forbidden feelings, and that it may take him across lines he never thought he’d cross.

A novel of sparkling originality, Troll is a wry, peculiar, and beguiling story of nature and man’s relationship to wild things, and of the dark power of the wildness in ourselves.

Tags Literary Gay

Praise

“A wily thriller-fantasy . . . Each discovery sounds like the voice of a storyteller reminding us of how the gods play with our fates.” —Margo Jefferson, The New York Times

“Sinisalo cleverly taps this fabled legacy [of myths] while ditching the fairy-tale tone you might expect. . . . Although [Troll] exploits the conventions of the fantasy genre, it clearly transcends them. . . . This smart, droll novel points out the absurdity of consumerism. . . . [Troll] underscores how our ad-driven culture and its images permeate our lives.” —Ellen Emery Heltzel, USA Today

“[An] imaginative and engaging novel of urban fantasy. . . . Overlapping narrative voices nicely underscore the moral of Sinisalo’s ingeniously constructed fable: The stuff of ancient legend shadows with rather unnerving precision the course of unloosed postmodern desire.” —Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post Book World

“Sinisalo takes us on a brilliant and sometimes horrifying multidisciplinary adventure through biology and belief, ecology, morality, myth and metaphysics, in a quest for a wild place where trolls can run free.” —Thomas Bell, Creative Loafing

“A brilliant and dark parable about the fluid boundaries between human and animal. . . . Johanna Sinisalo creates scenes that make you laugh out loud; 10 pages later you’re holding your breath with anxiety. Such talent is not to be taken for granted.” —Kevin O’Kelly, The Boston Globe

“Sinisalo uses the relationship [between man and troll] to examine the hidden motivations in human-human interactions. . . . Sinisalo sets up thematic connections between nearly every event in the book, but she handles them with a light touch. . . . Troll would be Ibsen’s The Wild Duck—if the duck were the main love interest. Granted, Ibsen’s doomed waterfowl never ended up in a pair of designer jeans, but both creatures highlight the uneasy role of feral nature trapped within civilized humanity.” —Izzy Grinspan, The Village Voice

“While trolls in legends and stories often resemble werewolves, changlings and demons, in Sinisalo’s book it’s the humans whose beastly qualities are familiar and threatening. Her in-translation language is marvelous, sexy, enticing. . . . Blood and bone mixes with unique humor and wit. Troll kicks Life of Pi out of the best-summer-reading boat. Survival of the fittest at its best.” —Jackie Jones, San Diego Union Tribune

“Johanna Sinisalo has created a strange, beautiful tale, expertly translated, and cinematic enough for movie scenes. . . . Thought-provoking, uniquely imaginative, and brimming with circus-sideshow details. . . Sinisalo’s story ascends to more than just a freakish attraction by being intellectual and darkly comic all at once. The result is simply brilliant.” —Jim Piechota, San Francisco Bay Reporter

“Told as a modern-day fairy tale, Troll haunted me long after I finished. It has all the elements, including some of the disturbing ones, found in so many of Grimm’s stories, but is nonetheless a truly original novel. If you like fiction in the style of Geek Love you will really enjoy this book.” —Danielle Marshall, Powells.com

Troll offers an ingenious dramatization of the nightmare of blurred boundaries between species, and a disturbing dystopian vision reminiscent of Karel Capek’s classic War with the Newts. A fascinating black comedy, from a writer who has made the transition to literary fiction with a giant’s stride.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[A] sexually charged contemporary folk tale. . . . Sinisalo’s elastic prose is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact. . . . The troll brings out Angel’s animal instincts, representing all the seduction and violence of the natural world.” —Publishers Weekly

“Sinisalo’s unusual, Finlandia Award-winning book tackles several tough questions, starting with, what does it mean to be human? The biggest question, however, is that sine qua non of so much fantastic literature—what if?—and pursuing an answer leads to a hitherto unimaginable place and an ending that leaves one reeling.” —Paula Luedtke, Booklist

Troll is a wonderfully compelling fable, suspenseful and infused with a primeval eroticism. Johanna Sinisalo is a writer who understands the wildness that lies deep within the civilized heart.” —Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs Of Babel

“Unsettlingly seductive . . . elegance, authenticity and chilling conviction.” —Independent on Sunday (UK)

“Blame global warming, but trolls are moving out of legend to scavenge at the outskirts of Finnish cities. . . . Sinisalo’s strange and erotic tale peers at the crooked world through a peephole. The troll comes to life after hours, unleashing glittering desires. . . . Is the troll becoming more human (hurt, jealousy), or does he merely reveal our own trollishness?” —The Guardian (UK)

“The comedy is irresistible, the pages turn themselves, carried along by the quicksilver of an unbelievably imaginative pen. . . . Run to this book. . . . An entertaining variation on the eternal confrontation between man and beast, the light and dark angels which live in all of us.” —Michel Abescat, Télérama (Paris)

Awards

Winner of the Finlandia Award (Finland’s equivalent of the Booker Prize)

Excerpt

Part 1
Dusk Crept Through the Greenwood
Angel

I’m starting to get worried. Martes’s face seems to be sort of fluc­tuating in the light fog induced by my four pints of Guinness. His hand’s resting on the table close to mine. I can see the dark hairs on the back of his hand, his sexy, bony finger-joints and his slightly distended veins. My hand slides toward his and, as if our hands were somehow joined together under the table, his moves away in a flash. Like a crab into its hole.

I look him in the eyes. His face wears a friendly, open, and understanding smile. He seems at once infinitely lovable and com­pletely unknown. His eyes are computer icons, expressionless dia­grams, with infinite wonders behind them, but only for the elect, those able to log on.

“So why did you ask me out for a drink? What did you have in mind?”

Martes leans back in his chair. So relaxed. So carefree. “Some good conversation.”

“Nothing more?”

He looks at me as if I’ve exposed something new about my­self, something disturbing but paltry: a bit compromising, but not something that will inexorably affect a good working relationship. It’s more as if my deodorant were inadequate.

“I have to tell you honestly that I’m not up for it.”

My heart starts pounding and my tongue responds on reflex, acting faster than my brain.

“It was you who began it.”

When we were little and there was a schoolyard fight, the most important thing was whose fault it was. Who began it.

And as I go on Martes looks at me as if I weren’t responsible for my behavior.

“I’d never have let myself in for this . . . if you hadn’t shown me, so clearly, you were up for it. As I’ve told you, I’m hot shit at avoiding emotional hangups. If I’ve really no good reason to think the other person’s interested I don’t let anything happen. Not a thing. Hell, I don’t even think it.”

Memories are crowding through my mind while I’m sound­ing off—too angrily, I know. I’m recalling the feel of Martes in my arms, his erection through the cloth of his pants as we leaned on the Tammerkoski River bridge railings that dark night. I can still feel his mouth on mine, tasting of cigarettes and Guinness, his mustache scratching my upper lip, and it makes my head start to reel.

Martes reaches for his cigarettes, takes one, flicks it into his mouth, lights his Zippo and inhales deeply, with deep enjoyment. “I can’t help it if I’m the sort of person people project their own dreams and wishes onto.”

In his opinion nothing has happened.

In his opinion it’s all in my imagination.

I crawl home at midnight, staggering and limping—it’s both the beer and the wound deep inside me. Tipsily, I’m licking my wound like a cat: my thought probes it like a loose tooth, inviting the dull sweet pain over and over again—dreams and wishes that won’t stand the light of day.

The street lamps sway in the wind. As I turn in through the gateway from Pyynikki Square, sleet and crushed lime leaves blow in with me. There’s loud talk in the corner of the yard.

A loathsome bunch of kids are up to something in the corner by the trash cans—young oafs, jeans hanging off their asses and their tattered windbreakers have lifted to show bare skin. They’ve got their backs to me, and one of them’s goading another, using that tone they have when they’re challenging someone to perform some deed of daring. This time it’s to do with something I can’t see, at their feet. Normally I’d give thugs like these a wide berth—they make my flesh crawl. They’re just the sort that make me hunch up my shoulders if I pass them in the street, knowing I can expect some foul-mouthed insult—but just now, because of Martes, because I don’t give a damn about anything and with my blood-alcohol count up, I go up to them.

“This is private property, it belongs to the apartment build­ing. Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

A few heads turn—they sneer—and then their attention goes back to whatever’s at their feet.

“Afraid it’ll bite?” one asks another. “Give it a kick.”

“Didn’t you hear? This is private property. Get the fuck out of here.” My voice rises, my eyes sting with fury. An image from my childhood is flashing through my brain: a gang of bullies from an older class are towering above me, sneering at me, and goading me in that same tone—”Afraid it’ll bite?”—and then they stuff my mouth with gravelly snow.

“Shove it up your ass, sweetie,” one of these juvenile delin­quent coos tenderly. He knows I’ve no more power over them than a fly.

“I’ll call the police.”

“I’ve called them already,” says a voice behind me. The or­nery old woman who lives on the floor below me and covers her rent by acting as some kind of caretaker has materialized behind me. The thugs shrug their shoulders, twitch their jackets, blow their noses onto the ground with a swagger and dawdle away, as if it was their choice. They shamble off through the gateway, manfully swearing, and the last one flicks his burning cigarette butt at us like a jet-propelled missile. They’ve hardly reached the street before we hear anxious running feet.

The lady snorts. “Well, they did do what they were told.”

“Are the police coming?”

“’Course not. Why bother the police with scum like that? I was off to the Grill House myself.”

The adrenaline’s cleared my head for a moment, but now, as I struggle to dig out my keys, my fingers feel like a bunch of sau­sages. The woman’s on her way to the gate, and that’s fine, because my pissed brain’s buzzing with a rigid, obsessive curiosity. I wait until she’s off and start peering among the garbage cans.

And there, tucked among the cans, some young person is sleeping on the asphalt. In the dark I can only make out a black shape among the shadows.

I creep closer and reach out my hand. The figure clearly hears me coming. He weakly raises his head from the crouching position for a moment, opens his eyes, and I can finally make out what’s there. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I know straight away that I want it.

It’s small, slender and it’s curled up in a strange position, as if it were completely without joints. Its head is between its knees, and its full black mane of hair is brushing the muddy pavement.

It can’t be more than a year old. A year and a half at the most. A mere cub. By no means the huge bulk you see in illustrations of the full-grown specimens.

It’s hurt or been abandoned, or else it’s strayed away from the others. How did it get to the courtyard of an apartment building in the middle of the town? Suddenly my heart starts thumping and I swing around, half expecting to see a large black hunched shadow slipping from the garbage cans to the gate and then off into the shel­ter of the park.

I react instinctively. I crouch down by it and carefully bend one of its forearms behind its back. It stirs but doesn’t struggle. Just in case, I twist the strap of my bag all around the troll so that its paws are fastened tightly to its side. I glance behind me and lift it up in my arms. It’s light, bird-boned, weighing far less than a child the same size. I glance quickly at the windows. There’s nothing but a reddish light glowing in the downstairs neighbor’s bedroom. The glamorous head of a young woman pops up in the window, her hand drawing the curtain. Now.

In a moment we’re in my apartment.

It’s very weak. When I lower it onto the bed it doesn’t struggle at all, just contemplates me with its reddish-orange feline eyes with vertical pupils. The ridge of its nose protrudes rather more than a cat’s, and its nostrils are large and expressive. The mouth is in no way like the split muzzle of a cat or a dog: it’s a narrow, horizontal slit. The whole face is so human-looking—like the face of the American woolly monkey or some other flat­faced primate. It’s easy to understand why these black creatures have always been regarded as some sort of forest people who live in caves and holes, chance mutations of nature, parodies of mankind.

In the light, its cubbishness is even more obvious. Its face and body are soft and round, and it has the endearing ungainliness of all young animals. I examine its front paws: they’re like a rat’s or racoon’s, with flexible, jointed fingers and long nails. I untie it, and the cub makes no move to scratch or bite. It just turns on its side and curls up, drawing its tufted tail between its thighs and folding its front paws against its chest. Its tangled black mane falls over its nose, and it lets out that half-moan/half-sigh of a dog falling asleep.

I stand at the bedside, looking at the troll-cub and taking in a strong smell—not unpleasant, though. It’s like crushed juniper berries with a hint of something else—musk, patchouli? The troll hasn’t moved an inch. Its bony side heaves to the fast pace of its breathing.

Hesitantly I take a woolen blanket from the sofa, stand by the bed a while, and then spread it over the troll. One of its hind legs gives a kick, like a reflex, swift and strong as lightning, and the blanket flies straight over my face. I struggle with it, my heart pumping wildly, for I’m convinced the frightened beast will go for me, scratching and biting. But no. The troll lies there curled up and breathing peacefully. It’s only now that I face the fact that I’ve brought a wild beast into my home.

My head and neck are aching. I’ve been sleeping on the sofa. It’s ridiculously early; still dark. And there’s nothing on the bed. So that’s what it’s all been: a fantasy that won’t survive the first light of day.

Except that the blanket lies crumpled on the floor by the bed, and there’s a faint little sound coming from the bathroom.

I get up and walk slowly, in the light of the streetlamps fil­tering through the window, creeping as quietly as I can to the bathroom door. In the dusk I can see a small black bony bottom, hind legs, a tufted twitching tail, and I realize what’s happening. It’s drinking from the toilet bowl. The juniper-berry smell is pun­gent. Then I spot a yellow puddle on my mint-green tiled floor. Naturally.

It has stopped lapping up water and has sensed that I’m there. Its torso is up from the bowl so fast I can’t see the movement. Its face is dripping with water. I’m trying to convince myself that the water is perfectly clean, drinkable. I’m trying to remember when I last scrubbed the bowl. Its eyes are still dull, it doesn’t look healthy, and its pitch-black coat is sadly short of gloss. I move aside from the bathroom door, and it slides past me into the living room, exactly as an animal does when it’s got another route to take—pretend­ing to be unconcerned but vividly alert. 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.

I go back to the kitchen for a cereal bowl, fill it with water and put it by the bed. Then I start mopping up the bathroom floor, though I’ve got a splitting headache. What the hell do trolls eat?

Back in my study, I leave the door open, boot up my com­puter, connect to the Internet and type TROLL.

Troll (older forms: hobgoblin, bugbear, ogre), Felipithecus trollius. Family: Cat-apes (Felipithecidae)

A pan-Scandinavian carnivore, found only north of the Baltic and in western Russia. Disappeared completely from Central Europe along with deforestation but, according to folklore and historical sources, still fairly common in me­dieval times. Not officially discovered, and scientifically classified as a mammal, until 1907. Before then assumed to be a mythical creature of folklore and fairy tale.

Weight of a full-grown male: 50-75 kg. Height standing upright: 170-190 cm. A long-limbed plantigrade, whose movements nevertheless show digitigrade features. Walk: upright on two legs. Four long-nailed toes on the hindlimbs, five on the forelimbs, both including a thumb-like gripping toe. The tail long, with a tuft. The tongue rough. The overall color a deep black, the coat dense, sleek. A thick black mane on the head of the males. Movement only at night. Main nourishment: small game, carrion, birds’ nests, and chicks. Hibernates. Cubs probably conceived in the autumn before hibernation, the female giving birth to one or two cubs in spring or early summer. About the behavior of this animal, however, so extremely shy of human contact, there is very little scientific knowledge. Extremely rare. Supposedly there are about four hundred specimens in Finland. Classified as an endangered species.

Angel

This is making me no wiser. I click on SEARCH and come up with the following.

mammals/carnivores

Because of their great outward resemblance to humans or apes, trolls were originally mistaken for close relatives of the hominids; but further study has demonstrated that the case is one of convergent evolution. Misclassified a primate, the species was first erroneously designated “the Northern Tro­glodyte Ape” (Latin: Troglodytas Borealis). Later it was ob­served that the troll belonged to a completely independent family of carnivores, the Felipithecidae, but the apelike attri­butions survived for a time in the nomenclature, Felipithecus troglodytas. At present, the established, scientifically accepted nomenclature of the species still bows to popular tradition as Felipithecus trollius. An interesting episode in the naming of the troll was a suggestion from the prestigious Societas pro Fauna et Flora: relying on the mythical and demonic connotations, they proposed the name Felipithecus satanus.

Only one other species of the Felipithecidae is known, the almost extinct yellow cat-ape (Felipithecus flavus), a roughly lynx-sized creature whose habitat is the heart of the Indone­sian rain forest. The common ancestor of the species is be­lieved, on fossil evidence, to have inhabited Southeast Asia.

Though, on the evidence of its mode of life and dentition, the troll is clearly a carnivore, many scientists consider that the species does not properly belong to the order of Car­nivora. Theories exist that the troll is more closely related to the insectivores and primates than to the true feline predators, and this is supported by certain anatomical features.

It has been suggested that several other species whose ex­istence has not been scientifically established beyond doubt (such as the legendary Tibetan “Abominable Snowman,” or Yeti, of hearsay, and the mythical North American Sasquatch, or “Bigfoot”) may also be humanity-shunning representa­tives of the Felipithecidae family.

Firm proof of the existence of Felipithecus trollius was not obtained until 1907, when the Biological and Botanical Department of the Tsar Alexander University of Helsinki re­ceived the carcass of a full-grown troll that had been dis­covered dead. There had been previous reports of firsthand sightings of trolls, but this legendary creature, oft-mentioned in folk tradition and in the Kalevala, was considered a purely mythical beast in scientific circles. Clearly, the occasional troll­cub encountered in the wilderness served to maintain myths of gnomes and goblins, especially in light of the theory that the trolls regulate any great increase in their population by abandoning newborn offspring.

The troll’s ability to merge with the terrain, the inacces­sibility of its habitat, its aversion to human contact, its silent night-habits and its hibernation in cave-dens, causing them rarely to leave snow tracks, may partially explain the late dis­covery of the species. The troll’s zoological history is thus very similar to those of, for example, the okapi, not iden­tified until 1900, the Komodo dragon (1912), and the giant panda (1937). In spite of abundant oral tradition and many sightings by the aboriginal population, accounts of these ani­mals were long classified by scientists as myth and folklore. It is worth remembering that an estimated 14 million subspecies of animals live on the planet, of which only about 1.7 million are recognized and classified, less than 15% of all species. The relatively large cloven-footed animals, Meganuntiacus vuquangensis and Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, for example, were only discovered in 1994 . . .

Angel

As I sit at my computer I glance from time to time at the bedroom. When I was drunk it seemed a hell of a good idea to bring this touching, rejected wild-animal cub into my pad. An animal that may grow as much as two meters tall.

But even now, when I’m totally sober, the animal has some­thing absolutely captivating about it. Is it just a professional’s ap­preciation of its visual grace?

Or is it that as soon as I see something beautiful I have to possess it? With my camera or with my eye or with my hand?

Through the shutter or by shutting the door? Even though I won’t know what to do with it?

But nothing changes the fact that the creature’s still small. And sick. And weak. And totally abandoned.

I print off a whole load of Internet material, without feeling it’s any help. I return to netzoo and click on EVOLUTION.

I learn that “convergent evolution” refers to species that de­velop in ways resembling each other without there being any close zoological relationship. Good examples are the shark, the ich­thyosaur, and the dolphin, which have developed from completely different vertebrate forms: the shark from fish, the ichthyosaur from land-dwelling reptiles, and the dolphin from land mammals. Nevertheless, they’ve all developed into streamlined, finned and tailed animals in the same ecological group: swift piscivorous marine predators. There are many other examples: grassland-dwelling flightless birds, such as the emu, the ostrich, and the extinct moa; or such semi-aquatic marine creatures as seals, sea-lions, and herbivorous sirenians, notably the dugong and the endangered manatee.

I’m getting more informed than I ever wanted to be. Ac­cording to the entry, convergent evolution means that, in widely separated terrains, the same atmospheric and environmental con­ditions can, through their physical properties, produce similar kinds of living organisms from totally different prototypes. Cases of con­vergent evolution are, on the one hand, the trolls and the South­east Asian cat-apes, derived from a small arboreal animal slightly resembling the mustelid or racoon, and, on the other, the apes and hominids derived from proto-primate mammals. Both occupied the same ecological niche, where bipedalism and prehensile fore­fingers were survival factors for the species . . .

Nothing to help me, though.

I look at my computer. It’s just a machine.

I’ll have to try elsewhere.

I can only speculate about the effect of the telephone ringing at Dr. Spiderman’s—at my old flame Jori Hämäläinen’s, that is—”Hämä­hämä-hämäläinen,” because getting worked up always makes him stammer. Hämähäkki being Finnish for spider, he’s naturally been dubbed “Spiderman.” Eight rings before he replies, and his voice reveals he’s ready to flip his lid.

First I fumble for the customary “How are things?”, etc., but I know that this road will soon be blocked.

‘sweet Angel, golden-haired cherub,” comes Spider’s slightly nasal, taunting voice. “It’s not very long ago you gave me a very nasty kick in the gluteus—after scarcely a couple of months of your angelic blessings. So what, I wonder, makes you call me now? And especially at this early hour.”

I splutter something about how I thought we’d agreed to be friends.

“I was beginning to think your mother had talked some sense into you—she always did dream you’d be partners with a real doc­tor, didn’t she?” Spider lashes out, making me blush. Then his tone changes, sounding almost interested. “You didn’t manage to net that guy, did you?”

It’s already coming home to me that this call is a terrible mis­take, but Spiderman goes on relentlessly.

“There you were, your great blue eyes moist with tears, try­ing to stammer out that I’m not your type, that I’m not the right one, and how ‘you’d be wounding me if you went on with a relationship where you yourself couldn’t be a hundred percent committed.’ And meanwhile you were going on about that other guy the whole time.”

Was I really? Hell, it was possible. As if I could have pos­sessed him by talking about him, throwing his name about, would­be casually.

“You really relished his name on your tongue. Martti, Martti—Martti this and Martti that. Guess how flagrant and re­pellent it sounded. And it was crystal clear that all your would-be serious, pretty little speech meant was this: you wanted me out of the way, so you could be free to step on the gas when this object of distant adoration—obviously your right-and-proper future com­mitment—gave the green light. Or what?”

I’m speechless. Incapable of saying anything.

“So then. What do you want?”

I clear my throat. This isn’t going to be easy.

“What do you know about trolls?”

There’s a howl of demonic laughter in my ear. “Angel, dar­ling, now I must have your permission to be inquisitive. Are you writing an essay for school?”

I mumble something stupid about having a bet on it. “You know,” I wind up helplessly, “about the sorts of things they eat.” I can feel the receiver radiating embarrassed silence into Spiderman’s ear.

He finally bursts out, “You ring an expensive veterinary sur­geon at eight-thirty on a Sunday morning to ask what trolls eat?”

I know Spider can be a prick and always is, given the chance, but then he’s never been able to resist an opportunity to show off his knowledge either. I’m right. A familiar lecturing tone creeps into his voice.

He starts ticking items off. “Frogs, small mammals. They rob birds’ nests. Sometimes they’ve been reported to prey on lambs in outlying fields, but that’s probably just rumor. There’s a theory that they fish with their paws, like bears, which I’ve no reason to doubt. Hares. Game birds. Now and then a reindeer-calf caught by the leg can end up as a troll’s dinner. Sometimes they harass white-tailed deer, too. They eat carrion when they come across it. A full-grown individual requires a kilo or two of animal protein a day. Any more questions?”

I nod at the receiver and let out assenting noises.

“Definitely carnivores, but not omnivorous like, for instance, bears. Similar digestive system to cats. So if you’re betting that trolls gnaw at spruce shoots by moonlight, your money’s down the drain. And if you want more information, Angel, my fairy queen, go to the library and consult Pulliainen’s The Large Predators of Finland.”

And then, cuttingly, he hangs up.

Reading Group Guide

Troll: A Love Story is set in contemporary Tampere, yet the plot revolves around a legendary creature that steps out of the pages of Finnish folk culture and into a modern apartment block. Worlds of fantasy and humdrum realities (annoying jobs, failed relationships) intersect through an imaginative plot that manages to address many larger issues and themes. When Angel, a young gay photographer, finds a troll being beat up by several thugs, he decides to take the beast in and eventually names it Pessi.

On one level, Troll is, as its subtitle indicates, a love story. Angel struggles to figure out how best to care and feed Pessi, is distraught when he sees him grow ill, and eventually leaves Tampere to return with Pessi to the woods after a terrible accident forces them to flee the city together.

Troll is also, however, a book about knowledge and a meditation on media. The Internet, newspaper accounts, and passages from Finnish folk literature create a multifaceted portrait of trolls. While Pessi never speaks in the book, a dozen different sources, from epic poems to Dr. Spiderman, a veterinarian and former boyfriend of Angel, lead Angel to an understanding of the animal that has come to live in his home. And while Angel can only understand Pessi through intermediaries, he also re-presents Pessi to the world with the use of his camera and Photoshop.

The two principal themes of Troll—love and the media—share an aspect in common: they are both reflections on “understanding.” How do we make sense of things that cannot speak to us? How does understanding transcend words, and when do words and language fail us? How do we love something or someone even when we may never truly understand them?

1. At various points in the book, Angel equates love with possession. When he first sees Pessi, he thinks, “I know straight away that I want it.” When he reflects on how often he would drop the name of a former boyfriend, he realizes this was driven by a feeling that he “could have possessed him by talking about him, throwing his name about.” What is the significance of Angel’s view of love? Is it unusual and does it make his fascination with an animal dependent on him easier to understand? Does Angel love Pessi or simply desire to possess him, and how do we distinguish between the two emotions? How do love and possession coexist in Palomita and Pentti’s relationship?

2. Troll is set in Tampere, a city in Finland, and much of the story takes place in apartment blocks and crowded cafés. Yet the rural world, the home of Pessi, repeatedly intervenes into this urban setting—most directly with Pessi’s arrival but also through news reports of climate change and its effect on the forests of Finland. How do these two worlds coexist in Troll? How do folk tales, with their portrayal of the woods as dark, unknowable, and mysterious, compare with the understanding of the contemporary characters of Troll? Is nature as unknowable and foreign for them as it was for the authors of the ancient Finnish tales cited in the book? Have the ‘mysteries’ of the mechanics of climate change simply replaced the mysteries of monstrous creatures that hide in the dark?

3. A number of the human characters in the book have names that refer to animals or other non humans: Angel, Palomita (“little dove”), Dr. Spiderman. At the same time, Pessi is often described as having human characteristics, the grace of a ballet dancer, for example. What other examples are there of animal attributes being used to describe humans, and human attributes used to describe animals?

4. Throughout the book, “scientific” evidence is presented testifying to the existence of trolls—”reports” from journals, accounts of attempts to track and monitor the animals. What do these sections of the book say about our view of the “authority” of texts? How does the tone of the “scientific” passages of the novel differ from the tone of the passages drawn from folk literature or the chapters in the voices of Angel, Palomita, and the other human characters? Does an attempt to understand our world through the language of the natural sciences and ourselves through the language of anthropology, psychology, and other human sciences distinguish mankind from other animals? Does Troll lead its readers to any conclusions about the value of that knowledge, or comment on what is lost when it is favored over other more direct, instinctual, and intimate forms of knowledge?

5. While Angel is dependent on many other sources to understand Pessi and his needs, he then transforms Pessi into something else as well. The troll becomes a model for a jeans ad campaign, when Angel is given an assignment to produce something never seen before, something “violent.” How does the photo shoot he produces distort the reality of Pessi? What is the significance of Angel’s decision to present Pessi to the world the way he does?

6. If Angel can only understand Pessi through other sources and not directly, Pessi also cannot know himself. When Pessi sees the ad campaign that features him, he goes into a rage. The reader then finds out that this is true of all trolls—they are repelled by their own ugliness. Is the incapacity for self-knowledge that is true of Pessi also true of other characters in the book? What flaws can the other characters not see in themselves?

7. Smells—of a man whose deodorant has given out, the musky smells of Pessi, the forest smells of a certain cologne—are important images in the book. What significance does our sense of smell have for the various characters? Does the emphasis on smell, as a sense, draw the reader closer to the world of Pessi and all animals that rely on the sense to a greater degree than humans do?

8. Almost all of the characters in the book, with the exceptions of Palomita and Pessi, are gay. Does their sexuality play a role in the story line? Specifically, when Angel first finds Pessi, being beat up by a group of hoodlums, is Pessi’s otherness a metaphor for violence against gay men and lesbians? Are those opening scenes, a portrayal of a troll-bashing, also indirectly addressing gay-bashing? Does Troll have any other themes relevant to gay life?

9. Along with Pessi, Palomita, the mail-order Filipino bride, is disconnected from the world around her because she cannot speak Finnish. Yet Palomita also appears to have some innate sympathy for Pessi, and she is able to recognize that he is ill and to help nurse him back to health. Is her inability to communicate related to her understanding of Pessi and her sympathy for him?

10. At the moment that Martes is about to be attacked by Pessi, he describes the troll as “a sci-fi movie monster.” What does Martes’s resorting to a cliché, even at a moment he is in mortal danger, say about his understanding of the world? Is he unique in the novel when he translates nature into stock images that fail to capture their ferocity and terror or is this trait true of other characters as well?

11. The book ends at the moment when Angel leaves the human world and is summoned by the trolls into their world. Is Angel also symbolically leaving the world of language for a world without language that is never described to the reader? Is it important that the reader not understand the world of trolls through Angel, but only through the excerpts from legends and folktales? How does the ending of the book, in which the world of humans is rejected by Angel because of its inhumanity to Pessi, highlight the differences between trolls and humans, between nature and mankind?

Suggested Further Reading:

The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor; The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherill; Great Apes by Will Self; Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; The Beast God Forgot to Invent by Jim Harrison; The Woman and the Ape by Peter Hoeg; The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov; The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle; Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis