I seem to be having a year of reading Tove in 2014, which is not something I would necessarily have expected. I knew of her, of course, from the Moomins, even though I hadn’t read them – but Simon at Stuck-in-Book‘s championing of her other prose had made me keen, and being lucky enough to find two of her adult books in the Oxfam has encouraged me along! I reviewed the first, “Fair Play” here, and enjoyed it hugely – so picking up “The Summer Book” when I was unsure what to read recently was a no-brainer.
TSB is reckoned by many to be her best adult book, and apparently is a classic in Finland. Sort Of books have championed Tove’s adult books, and this one is as beautifully produced as the others I’ve seen, with French flaps and lovely cover illustrations. It tells the story of a summer in the lives of 85-year-old Grandmother and 6-year-old Sofia, and the time they spend on together on an island in the Finnish sea. There is a darker side – mother is absent, and father spends all of his time working, a brooding presence slightly offstage.
The story is based on Tove’s life, with Grandmother being Tove’s own mother, and Sofia her real-life niece. And the darkness is shown here too – Sofia’s mother, Tove’s sister-in-law, died when the child was 6 and it’s hard not to see that event reflected in the fiction, with father burying himself in work and the child and grandmother left to fend for themselves.
And the two do this admirably, having the kind of wonderful relationship that only seems to be possible between a grandparent and grandchild. Both are in effect children and happily go their own way over the summer – rambling over the island, going out in a boat, lying in the grass dreaming, experiencing a huge storm, trespassing on a neighbour’s property, quarrelling and making up. The book is structured in many ways like “Fair Play”, a series of short linked chapters each of which tells a tale.
Jansson’s storytelling is wonderful: deceptively simple, easy to read but packed with insight and joy. You feel as though you’re experiencing the book with the participants, living a summer on the island. Her prose is lovely and evocative, summoning up the feeling of isolation:
“Sometime in July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows, and the whole island would be covered with a veil dipped in heat, hardly visible and gone in a week. Nothing could give a stronger impression of untouched wilderness.”
She’s not afraid to tackle with big subjects too – it would be far too easy to paint an idyllic picture of an island life, but Jansson puts in the quarrels and bickering, nature red in tooth and claw, and acknowledges the presence of darker thoughts:
“(Grandmother) started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion of the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.”
Despite this darker side, however, the book is remarkably uplifting – full of wisdom, reflecting the complex love between the old and the young, and painting a wonderful picture of the life that must have been led on the island by her mother and her niece.
I absolutely loved “The Summer Book” – Tove Jansson is rapidly becoming a favourite author, and I think I will definitely have to explore the Moomin world a little further too. But in the meantime, I can’t help longing for the isolation of an island in the cool sea….