Tove Jansson might be best known for The Moomins, her series of books and comics about a group of hippo-like characters and their Scandinavian home, but she is also responsible for a number of books for adults, two of which I have recently read and enjoyed immensely.
The Summer Book, written in 1972, is a moving and poignant story about a young girl, Sophia, who spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the gulf of Finland. As the season progresses, these two develop a relationship that blooms with trust and truth, becoming tighter and clearer as the days pass. Their discussions skirt around the death of Sophia’s mother and the absence of her father, yet the seemingly small topics of their exchanges reveal the true nature of the love between girl and grandmother. Their conversation, humorous and sometimes heartrending, sparkles like the clear summer light that fills the book.
“‘Wait a minute!’ Grandmother said. She was very upset. ‘I’m not through! I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and it’s been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’”
Jansson’s spare writing hides the fact that this book is startlingly complex. As is a book she wrote ten years later, The True Deceiver. Like The Summer Book, The True Deceiver is about the relationship between two women. In most other ways, it is the polar opposite of The Summer Book. The True Deceiver takes place in the dead of winter in an undisclosed Scandinavian location. Where in The Summer Book, the relationship between the main characters grows closer as the story unfolds, here, it dissolves. The True Deceiver is “a novel about truth, deception, self-deception and the honest uses of fiction,” says Ali Smith in her introduction. Katri, the antagonist, is a wolfish loner who moves in with an aging author of children’s books, Anna. Anna is easily manipulated and Katri sets out to take over Anna’s life and finances. As the story proceeds it becomes less clear as to who is the “true deceiver,” who is playing games with whom. The thriller-like, yet haunting quality of this book will keep you turning the pages. The writing is sharp and Jansson’s well-crafted words reflect the nature and surroundings of this Nordic land, the quiet, hushed feeling of her prose mirroring the snowy terrain, hiding what truly lies beneath.
Each of these two books distill the essence of the seasons, the summer light, the weighty, sleepy feeling of it, an old woman who is always fighting exhaustion and a young child for whom summer provides the ultimate adventure and escape from heavier matters. And the dark, heavy snow, the thorough chill and the hush it creates. Two women isolated from a small village, hiding truths from each other and themselves.
As Ali Smith says in her review of The Summer Book in The Guardian , “her [Jansson’s] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded.”