Core of the Sun
by Johanna Sinisalo
Grove Press, Black Cat 2016
by Sara Alice Di Blasi
Sara Alice Di Blasi
Sara Alice Di Blasi is a poet and fiction writer getting her MFA at The New School. She has a B.A. in communication from Trinity University and is currently an editor at Trendland.
April 28, 2016
Unlike most dystopian works, Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun does not travel into an unforeseeable future to comment on the present and past. Set in 2017, and earlier years, the novel represents a fictional Finland, the perfect backdrop for discussing women who are only allowed to “write shopping lists and read them aloud, say the names of plants and mushrooms and fish on classroom charts, remember what temperature to wash wool or cotton. Or calculate how to alter a recipe for four to feed six.” This is a novel about openings. About longing for someone who may or may not circle back. Most importantly, it is a feminist novel.
Reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s work, Sinisalo perhaps does not create a Brave New World, but does succeed in informing a “strange and hostile” one. Where elois are gorgeous and gracious women whose social role is to reproduce, morlocks, their inconceivable counterparts, are women who are forbidden from contributing their genes or genius to society. The core of the story centers itself in the moral gray area, that limbo between dichotomies: right and wrong, woman and man, masculine and feminine, even addiction and sobriety. Vera, the protagonist, walks these lines and often crosses them. Functioning as an arguably hybrid work, The Core of the Sun, is and isn’t a romance, a thriller, a mystery.
The book is a collage that pieces together newspaper articles, school reports, court transcripts, fables, bed time stories, advertisements, letters, and narration, whose scope is to aid the protagonist Vera in illustrating a very different picture of the patriarchal system for her missing sister Mira. The book functions as a shape shifter. It becomes any of these things, and then its opposite. As The Core of the Sun is in your hands you begin to feel guilty for reading it, almost as if you are holding a banned text. Sinisalo knows “there’s always a demand for the forbidden.”
Conceivably, the guilt comes from the blatant, matter-of-fact tone carried throughout. By placing some of our demons in a similar, but different context, it might just be easier to identify them by name. Some of these demons in the novel are masked: chilies, a fire truck, and books easily become a stand-in for drugs, sexism, and the imbalance of knowledge.
Sinisalo moves seamlessly from severity to absurdity and hilarity by posing questions such as “how long would an alcoholic think about whether to take a job as a wine taster,” and even, “There have been strange times in the past when people paid for sex, merely because selling sex was illegal. To be more specific: ‘I want to know how to earn some money under the table.’”
The novel often questions lines of reasoning that function as facts in our society. The domestication of animals takes a sinister turn when the novel reveals its parallel: the domestication of women, "a domesticated animal like any other. This is how it’s always done. They get smaller, their horns shorter, their snouts flattened, their teeth shrunken, their fur paler, their behavior docile, gentle, meek, affectionate. Dogs, pigs, cows, goats, water buffalo, rabbits, elois." Even the phrase “socially acceptable” is cracked open to reveal “certain rules… nothing anyone had ever officially written down, but tempered by custom until they were as hard as iron.”
Perhaps where the work truly hits home is in its ability to juxtapose evils that are wrestled with daily and the coping mechanisms that might serve as their crutch. Where the novel shows drug abuse and addiction, it is actually highlighting the much larger and harder to tackle, sexism and misogyny. Then, in a subtle call to action, the protagonist seems to speak to the reader in saying “I know there’s absolutely nothing to envy about the depravities of a decadent democracy, but sometimes I find myself thinking that at least in a place like that nobody ever has to wonder about these things.” And yet the novel exists precisely because these are the very things that need to be pondered.
“I’ll build a history for you,” Vera promises her sister, and Sinisalo does just that by highlighting portions of our very own. The novel pushes the boundaries of belief, and yet keeps unwavering hope “that someday someone will find it, in a world that has changed.”