The Humanoid Touch


Angel, a photographer, is returning home drunk and despondent after a breakup when he comes across a group of teens tormenting a troll. Since the creature is young and sick, Angel decides to adopt it. For the first chunk of Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story, the suspense revolves around care and feeding: Will Angel be able to nurse the troll, whom he names Pessi, back to health? What exactly do trolls eat? Is it ever a good idea to keep an adolescent carnivore in a small urban apartment?

Sinisalo layers her story with quotes from the sources Angel consults in order to understand Pessi: websites, children’s books, ancient Scandinavian yarns. All three suggest a strange affinity between trolls and humans. As with sharks and dolphins, their relationship is one of convergent evolution: Pessi’s ancestors developed to be unsettlingly similar to Angel’s, though they’re definitely not the same species.

Which is where Troll becomes complicated. One more troll fact: Pessi, like all his ilk, secretes pheromones that are powerfully attractive to males (and smell like CK One). Suddenly all the men in town are after Angel, but Angel only has eyes for his troll. This isn’t quite as raunchy as it sounds—rather than focus on man-troll sex scenes, Sinisalo uses the relationship to examine the hidden motivations in human-human interactions. Angel may have a troll in his living room, but he’s hardly the only character in the book whose urban sophistication belies a concealed interior wilderness.

Sinisalo sets up thematic connections between nearly every event in the book, but she handles them with a light touch. Many of her scenes are set in a gay dive bar, and one of Troll‘s most subtly complex passages deconstructs the bar’s atmosphere as “a gray area outside the respectable, minutely organized community,” linking Angel’s social circle to other demimondes within the visible city. Meanwhile, Pessi’s situation resonates with the plight of Palomita, a mail-order bride in Angel’s building who speaks no Finnish but schemes to help him with his pet. Everyone in Troll is hiding something, even the characters who are hidden themselves .

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.