Saturday, 7 December 2013

Book Review: The Summer Book (Tove Jansson)

English: Tuulikki Pietilä, Tove Jansson and Si...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You'll probably know Tove Jansson - if you've heard of her at all - as the Moomin woman - and that's certainly how Finland's tourist trade likes to promote her. You can hardly move in Helsinki without being met by one of the strange bulbous-nosed things. A celebrated illustrator and artist, Jansson was born to artist parents and was about as Bohemian as a Scandinavian gets - including a life-long relationship with her female partner (which everyone appears scrupulously to avoid calling a 'relationship' but which Jansson's own writing makes clear is a thing of shared beds).

Through a moment of Kindle caprice, I met Tove Jansson the novelist and was instantly entranced. My first buy was The Summer Book and, in Helsinki for the summer, the book made perfect, delicious sense. I went on not only to voraciously read everything of hers I could get my hands on in the weeks that followed, but went on to reread them too. Funnily enough, her Moomin legacy to this day overshadows her serious writing (look at her Wikipedia page and you'd think she'd never written a book) and yet her novels are gloriously written observations of humanity that veer dangerously close to philosophical. Her The True Deceiver is a book as dark as the Finnish winter nights. But, fie!, we're not here to celebrate darkness, but the summer.

The Summer Book is about a little girl, Sophia, and her grandmother - whose name we never learn. Together, the girl and the grandmother explore the island off Finland the family takes to each summer. Father is a sculptor, mother is never mentioned. Sophia's world is magical, her bafflements and quizzical nature delightful and her moments of rage and contrariness explored with an insider's knowledge. Her grandmother, bluff and all-knowingly wise, is as well able to see the magic of the island as Sophia - albeit through eyes that know they will soon close for ever.
"When are you going to die?" the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, "Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours."
Thankfully, nobody told Jansson how to write. The very first story in what is essentially a collection of sequential short stories progressing through the months of summer is 'The Morning Swim' and, horror of horrors, the POV is all over the place. One minute we're seeing the world through Sophia's eyes, the next through Grandmother's. And so it goes throughout the book, we share the world through both of their points of view with wilful haphazardness.

This lack of structured composition will horrify the Word Nazis, as will a great deal of 'Showing'. And yet both are critical elements in a book that takes its time narrating not very much at all really and yet which is enchanting, entrancing and utterly captivating. The constant POV switches are never confusing, never pull you up or jar. They just show us how two strong personalities see the same world with different eyes and yet with a charming regard and care for each other. It's not without its dramas, this celebration of Finnish island life: there are storms and malevolent cats, Venice sinks into the sea and little girls with curls split Sophia and her Grandmother.

And island life is critically important to the Finns. They have over 780 islands, from the great fortifications of Suomenlinna to skerries with single rusty-red wooden houses and bare guano-spattered rocks. The sun's warmth (and the sea's coldness), the sound of the breeze wind in the reeds, the smell of the sea and oil-cloth, cork floats and fishing nets and the whiff of Grandmother's sneaked cigarettes are in every chapter of The Summer Book. If great narrative transports us, this book has remarkable greatness in every page.

Five stars, clearly.

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