Early shout for book of the year

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Jo­hanna Sin­isalo Grove Press, £12.99 Alastair Mab­bott

MAR­GARET At­wood and Al­dous Hux­ley get down with Car­los Cas­taneda in The Core Of The Sun, an ad­ven­tur­ous and orig­i­nal dystopian satire which isn’t likely to be for­got­ten in a hurry. The fol­low-up to Sin­isalo’s Troll: A Love Story, it’s set in an al­ter­nate world where Fin­land long ago shut it­self off from the rest of the planet to be­come a “eu­sis­to­cratic repub­lic” – a land in which ev­ery­thing is done in the name of the health and sta­bil­ity of its cit­i­zens. Car­ried away by the craze for eu­gen­ics in the early 20th cen­tury (and par­tic­u­larly gal­vanised by Belyaev’s ex­per­i­ments in do­mes­ti­cat­ing sil­ver foxes), the Fin­nish au­thor­i­ties have se­lec­tively bred and re­lent­lessly con­di­tioned the coun­try’s fe­male pop­u­la­tion into “femi­women”, pop­u­larly known as “eloi” af­ter the in­fan­tilised hu­mans of H.G. Wells’ The Time Ma­chine.

The eloi are sub­mis­sive, sug­gestible, stereo­typ­i­cally “girly” and mo­ti­vated only by the de­sire to serve their men­folk. They’re also com­pet­i­tive when po­ten­tial hus­bands are at stake, so the con­cept of sis­terly sol­i­dar­ity never gains any pur­chase. In­ter­est­ingly, in a par­al­lel with Balyaev’s ex­per­i­ments with foxes, their phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics have al­tered, too. As each gen­er­a­tion of women has grown more docile than the last, so too have they be­come more child­like in ap­pear­ance. In­evitably, the se­lec­tive breed­ing some­times fails, re­sult­ing in smart, in­de­pen­dent women. These are nick­named “mor­locks”, placed in man­ual jobs and pre­vented from breed­ing.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter in Sin­isalo’s book, Vanna, is an un­usual case, be­ing a mor­lock who is phys­i­cally in­dis­tin­guish­able from an eloi and who has spent her life up to this point mim­ick­ing their servile de­meanour, and sashay­ing hips. Fur­ther­more, she’s haunted by the dis­ap­pear­ance of her younger eloi sis­ter, Manna. Manna has been de­clared dead, and her hus­band given a to­ken jail sen­tence for her mur­der, but Vanna can’t shake off the feel­ing that she might still be alive.

So suc­cess­ful is Fin­land’s iso­la­tion from “the he­do­nis­tic coun­tries” that it’s be­come a com­pletely dry coun­try, de­void of al­co­hol, to­bacco or any other kind of stim­u­lant. This has led to a thriv­ing black mar­ket in chili pep­pers, the Finn’s drug of choice. Tor­mented by her anoma­lous gen­der iden­tity and the loss of her sis­ter, Vanna has be­come a chili ad­dict, a con­nois­seur of its ac­tive in­gre­di­ent, cap­saicin.

Yes, The Core Of The Sun gets weirder still, and it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to ex­plore this care­fully thought-through dystopia and ex­am­ine its un­holy al­liance be­tween eu­gen­ics, pa­tri­archy and iso­la­tion­ism, es­pe­cially as the sub­ver­sive po­ten­tial of the chili pep­per is grad­u­ally re­vealed.

Vanna and her chili-deal­ing friend Jare be­come in­volved with a cult which plans to breed the most pow­er­ful min­dal­ter­ing chili, and the se­cluded farm on which Vanna grew up would be the per­fect place to do it. Sin­isalo man­ages to shape these di­verse strands into a sur­pris­ingly co­her­ent nar­ra­tive, which, as it gath­ers pace in the sec­ond half, be­comes very hard to put down. It’s dark, bit­ing, un­like any­thing you’ll read this year and, ul­ti­mately, a tri­umph.

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