Tove Jansson, for those of you who don’t know, was a primarily Swedish-speaking Finnish writer, most famous for the Moomins. You all know what those are, right? So, Jansson, as well as her creepy, bipedal pink hippo cartoons, also wrote several “proper” books. By that I mean serious fiction, yeah, for adults. This one, The Summer Book, is widely considered to be her masterpiece and is a loosely autobiographical work detailing life, during the Summer, on a small island off the South coast of Finland. It is about childhood and old age, about mortality and nature, about animals, about humanity, about life. It is a beautiful, gentle novel and it, as all good novels should, made me cry.
The two main characters are Sophia and her unnamed grandmother who (to forgo all the lectures I attended a decade ago on Barthes) are based on Jansson’s niece and Jansson’s mother. The family spend every summer living on their private island, and what we get here are (implied) snippets from the events of several summers, but snippets that fall in between two significant points in Sophia’s life: the death of her mother (who is always dead – we are NEVER earlier) and the onset of puberty. At some points she gets a bit antagonistic towards her family (her father is also there, but he is distant, in far more complex mourning – a lover means more than a mother, right, guys?), but is never teenage. The novel could, feasibly (as it is episodic), take place over one long Summer, or be the collated moments of importance taken from three, four, maybe even five years.
Sophia is a child throughout, and unless the reader counts storms, there is never any threat: The Summer Book is a heartbreaking piece about an old woman trying to entertain her motherless grandchild, whilst becoming ever more aware of her own physical decline and inevitable death. The grandmother hides the depth of her son’s grief, she receives a visit from a friend of her youth also feeling his age, and she tries to teach Sophia as much about the world as she deems appropriate.
It is rare, possibly more so as time has gone on, to read a novel about childhood that is both a) literary (i.e. marketed towards adults) and b) not horribly dark. When I think of childhood I think of mute innocence and the resultant availability to exploitation**, but there’s a whole lot of other, lighter, stuff that happens during that stage of life, too. Jansson discusses exploration of nature, of the natural world and the world of humanity, too – but here that means steam rollers, fishing equipment and boats, not meth dealers, cock rings and cock fighting rings. There is an innocence present in The Summer Book that I don’t think even I am cynical enough to believe is no longer present in contemporary childhood. Yes, Sophia has lost her mother and there is resultant grief and bereavement, but there is not a world of unparalleled darkness opening up to take the place of her mother, there is instead the affection of her grandmother, who is not replacing or taking the place of the lost parent, but replenishing some of the gaps, plugging some of the holes.
Literarily, Jansson writes with simple elegance. Everything necessary is written, everything superfluous is gone. The Summer Book is not a short novel because Jansson ran out of ideas, it is a short novel because she expressed herself as she meant to.
This charming novel about old age, mortality and childhood reminds one of the joys of life, without denying its horrors. Nature, and the nature of Finland in particular, is gorgeous, and this slim novel allows all to enjoy it.
I smiled a lot, I cried a lot, and neither in a self-indulgent way.
Beautiful prose, a wonderful text. Highly recommended.
* I went driving for a while this afternoon, which was reckless but perfectly legal. It’s absurd, I often find, that it is FINE to get so wired on caffeine that you cannot sit down, cannot stand still, feel like your face is throbbing, yet are allowed to drive a car at 100km/ph plus (not plus, Finnish traffic police, that was bravado) with no questions asked. At one point I was so caffed up that I tried to switch the car into reverse instead of fifth gear. And that’s all above board, baby!
** To my knowledge, I wasn’t abused as a child. However, as a Freudian, I believe I COULD be repressing terrifying cock-heavy memories that would, to be fair, explain rather a lot about my attitudes towards sexuality. (See like EVERY OTHER POST for more details.)