Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson
There are a few authors I seem to be returning to at the moment – the Strugatskys, Irene Nemirovsky and of course the wonderful Tove Jansson. I recently tracked down a reasonably priced copy of this, her first work of fiction for adults, and couldn’t resist picking it up (even though there are plenty of older books on Mount TBR…)
“Sculptor’s Daughter” came out in 1968, by which time Jansson was a household name because of her creation of the Moomins. The book is a collection of short pieces firmly rooted in the world of a child; growing up in Finland, the girl inhabits her father’s studio, and an island near the sea, and the imaginative land that forms part of every child’s developing mind.
Is this fiction or autobiography? That’s often a hard question to answer as so many novelists use their lives in their work, but it’s particularly difficult in the case of Jansson where the parallels are so striking. The book is subtitled “A Childhood Memoir” and I think it’s best to read it as a fictionalised portrayal of Jansson’s childhood; because the stories here are not simply straightforward recollections. Instead, she gets inside the mind of a child, recreating the wonder and fear of the world around her, and the perceptions of things which are seen quite differently from the way an adult would.
As with all of Tove Jansson’s work, this is a compelling read. She had a unique voice and viewpoint, and whatever she was writing about was very individually hers. There are vivid passages of adventures rowing out to sea, hiding from imagined dangers and the complex relationships between children, all of which will remain with me.
One of the strengths of the book is its portrait of Tove’s parents, the sculptor Viktor Jansson and the graphic designer/illustrator Signe Hammarsten-Jansson – let’s face it, it was inevitable Tove would be creative! Her parents come vividly to life through their daughter’s eyes, with their bohemian lifestyle and uncompromising way of living, and the book acts as a wonderful tribute to them.
Jansson went on to write many more adult works, several of which I’ve read, and with a lot of them there is a sense that again she was using her life in fiction. This is no criticism, because I love her stories; and it’s fascinating to see how she translated the people in her life into her work, even extending this into her Moomin stories (I assume that the Moomin family reflect her own, and certainly Too-Ticky was based on her life partner Tuulikki Pietilä). There’s always a lot more depth in Jansson’s writing that might appear at first, and her characters go through all sorts of vicissitudes, just like all of us in real life.
In some ways, it’s hard to review Tove Jansson’s work – I could just keep throwing out superlatives and saying how wonderful she is, and pinning down her brilliance is not easy. She’s a writer who gets to the essence of things, making you see the world anew which is a real achievement. And very fortunately, there are still works of hers I haven’t yet read!