Finnish author Tove Jansson is probably best known as the woman behind the Moomins – certainly, that’s how I’d heard of her, although I confess that I’ve never read (or watched) the adventures of the little white creatures! However, Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book has been constant in his praise of Jansson’s writing for adults, so when I spotted “Fair Play” in the local Oxfam Charity Shop, it was a given that I’d pick it up!

fair play

Wikipedia says of Jansson: “Tove Marika Jansson (9 August 1914 – 27 June 2001) was a Swedish-speaking Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator and comic strip author. For her contribution as a children’s writer she received the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966. Jansson is best known as the author of the Moomin books for children. Starting with the semi-autobiographical Bildhuggarens dotter (Sculptor’s Daughter) in 1968, she wrote six novels and five books of short stories for adults.”

“Fair Play” is one of Jansson’s later works, first published in 1989, and it’s hard to know quite how to describe it: is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? However you regard it, the book tells tales from the life of two women artists, Mari and Jonna, who share their lives and their work. Mari is a writer and Jonna an artist, and their time is spent either in their apartment (with rooms at either end and common space in the middle), on a Finnish island or travelling. The women get lost in the fog; travel through America, making friends in Phoenix; watch and videotape movies; and create their art.

This is a deceptively short, deceptively simple and quite profound book. The series of vignettes captures the essence of the women and their relationship; ever shifting and changing like real relationships, with the squabbles, the compromises, the unexpressed emotions, the jealousies, and the shorthand used in communicating when you’ve known someone for a long, long time…

The prose is spare and elegant, conveying all you need to know of the characters in subtle and simple phraseology. Yet that’s not to imply the portrayal is shallow or superficial, because it isn’t. In this series of short tales, each containing one particular aspect of the essence of the women’s lives, the whole of their existence is cleverly revealed. The images the tales conjure up, from the bleak, foggy island, to the dark streets of Phoenix, are remarkably vivid and Jansson is obviously a master (mistress?) of elegant prose.


It’s hard not to conflate author and characters here; the book is described as semi-autobiographical and Mari is a writer, so it’s natural to connect Jansson with her and Jonna with Jansson’s life partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. But whether this is a portrait of their lives or not is irrelevant really – it’s the quality of the writing that’s important, and how much it has to convey about how we live our lives and all the little daily adjustments we make to get through.

Jansson’s writing throughout is haunting and marvellous, and I can see why Simon raves about her. The book is still resonating with me after several days and I’m sure I’ll be returning to Tove’s work again.

(As an aside, this is a beautifully produced little volume by Sort Of Books – with French flaps, illustrations on the outer and inner covers plus at the start and end of the book – I wish all publishers would bring out their books in such quality editions!)