Thursday, September 16, 2010


Tove Jansson may be known to some readers as the creator of the Moomin family, those oddly hippopotamus-looking trolls who inhabit an island somewhere far away with various other odd creatures such as Sniff, Snufkin and the Snorks.

"Every children's book should have a path in it where the writer stops and the child goes on," Jansson said. "A threat or a delight that can never be explained. A face never completely revealed."

However, Tove Jansson also wrote for adults. I've just read her book, The Summer Book, which is a deftly lyrical evocation of the everyday, and in particular, of the relationship between the young girl Sophia and her grandmother. Underlying this is a gaping absence - Sophia's mother has died. This loss - barely mentioned - nonetheless haunts the book. The reader knows that the Grandmother's actions and thoughts are played out against this backdrop and that Sophia's conversation and imaginative life resonate with unspoken grief.

Despite this, and the realisation that death also stalks the Grandmother - often dizzy, always threatened with fatigue - this is not an unhappy book. It shimmers with richly observed minutiae. The seasonal rituals of the island, which anchor the characters to place and to each other, are tenderly chronicled.

But it's the interaction between Sophia and the Grandmother that makes this book so rewarding. The Grandmother is careful with Sophia - she enters the child's world with generosity - even while she clings precariously to her own. In return, Sophia treats her as an equal - and perhaps that is the key to the joy of this book. It's true territory is an exploration of the relationship between two outsiders, allied both by sorrow, but also by being largely ignored because of their age.

When the father goes to an island party and leaves the Grandmother and Sophia behind, they invent wild stories to explain his perfidy:

"Now I know," Sophia burst out. "they gave him a sleeping potion. Just when he was about to go and get us, they put a pinch of sleeping powder in his glass, and that's why he's sleeping so late!"

"Nembutal," Grandmother suggested. Grandmother liked to sleep. Sophia stared at her with wide-open eyes. "Don't say that!" she screamed. "What if he never wakes up!" she turned around and started to run. She was crying out loud in terror, and she turned and jumped and started running, and right then, right there on top of a rock, held down a stone, was a huge box of chocolates. It was a great big pink-and-green package tied with silver ribbon. The bright colours made the rest of the island look greyer than ever, and there was no doubt that the wonderful box was a present. There was a little card inside the bow. Grandmother put on her glasses and read it to herself. "Love and kisses to those too old and too young to come to the party." "How tactless!" she muttered through her teeth.

"What does it say? What did they write?" Sophia shouted.

"It says," her grandmother said, "what it says is: 'We have behaved very badly, and it's all our fault. Forgive us if you can.'"

"Can we?" Sophia asked.

"No," said Grandmother.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal, Sort of Books, London, 2003. A beautiful discovery.

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