Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
Short story writing is an art, there’s no mistaking that; and having read quite a lot of the genre in recent years, I do feel that stumbling upon the work of Tove Jansson has brought me to a master of the craft. It was repeated recommendations of other bloggers that pointed me in her direction, and as well as dipping into the Moomin stories, I’ve also been exploring her adult fiction. Last year I delighted in Fair Play and The Summer Book, and recently picked up Travelling Light as the ideal book to dip into while, you’ve guessed it, travelling!
The book contains twelve pieces, varying in length, and each is a little gem. For me, the test of the strength of a collection of short works is how well they take on an individual identity and how strongly they remain in the memory. With some authors I’ve read recently, there’s been a tendency for the works to blend together a little, but not here; each story is a beautifully carved piece of fiction, strong enough to stand on its own.
There’s “The Summer Child”, a strange and moving tale of a little boy sent to spend the summer by sea with another family, and the differences between them, their misunderstandings and the reaching of a kind of crisis; the title story, which proves just how impossible it is to detach oneself from the rest of humanity; “The Woman Who Borrowed Memories”, a powerful and chilling tale of greed and manipulation; and “The PE Teacher’s Death”, which highlights the superficiality and hypocrisy in everyday life.
The stories vary in length and some of the shortest pieces are the most effective. In particular, “A Foreign City” is a powerful tale of an older gentleman lost in a strange city, unable to speak the language and ending up staying the night with a mysterious stranger. The almost Kafkaesque narrative captures the haunting quality of an alien place and is also a potent analogy of the problems of ageing, with the lapses of memory and confusion that can go with it.
The stories succeed so well because they aren’t surface level; each digs deep below the surface, revealing the motivations, the complexities of human beings and their relationships; and each throws a different light on human behaviour. And Jansson’s prose is marvellous; there really isn’t a dud in this collection, and I finished it exhilarated, desperate to read another volume of her work but wanting to save them and savour them. And the joy is I still have several more of her books ready to read!
I feel I need to add huge kudos and admiration to Sort Of books for bringing us so much of Jansson’s work in English; the books as objects are beautiful too, so well done folks! 🙂