A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

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A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As beautiful, spiritual and hard to hold as light-play on the waves.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Sort Of Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0954899523

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Tove Jansson's worldwide fame lasts on the Moomin books, written in the 1940s and later becoming television characters of the simplicity, naivety and sheer 'goodness' that would later produce flowerpot men or teletubbies. Simple drawings, simple stories, simple goodness. What is often forgotten outside of her native Finland is that she was a serious writer…that she wrote for adults as well as children…and that she had a feeling for the natural world and the simple life that not only informed those child-like trolls but went far beyond any fantasy of how the world might be.

Jansson's name came back to our attention in 2003 when "Sort of" Books had the wisdom to republish her Summer Book, which told of a six-year-old child's visit to the summer island of her ageing artist grandmother.

That the follow-up publication – exploiting the success of The Summer Book, but no less a joy for all the buck-making publisher-savvy that brings it to us – that this should be called A Winter Book is one of those marketeering masterstrokes. Something so 'right' you just resent that it came out of the marketing department.

The point is that "The Summer Book" was part autobiography, part fiction, but was in essence about a single summer. The Book of 'The Summer' – one specific summer.

The Winter Book is not. It is a collection of selected stories. Again, one feels almost certainly autobiographical in essence if not in the event. Some of the stories do tell of northern Winters that we southern Europeans cannot begin to imagine…but others are from other, unspecified times of year. This is a compilation and not necessarily one that Jansson herself would have hung together in this way. It is, therefore, a Winter book in that sense too… a book put together in the cold aftermath of her passing… one extracted from what remains without her warmth to guide the selection.

What of the stories though?

The collection is divided into three: The Snow, Flotsam & Jetsam, and Travelling Light.

The Snow and Flotsam & Jetsam draw mainly from The Sculptor's Daughter but rearranging the tales thematically with the winter townscapes separated from the summer country.

The Snow brings us the real Winter-time stories. The Sisyphean myth replayed with all the seriousness of the child attaching a magical import to a stone, a desperation to fulfil this one task and thus end the family's woes. In another time, a young girl lies in her bed listening to her parents parties…the music played on the balalaika, and heroic conversations and the soft light and smell of too much drink, which spin tales in the mind of magic that might disappear if you look too closely, and disappear anyway the next day. Tales of darkness and of ice. And of snow that falls and falls and falls…being snowed in…and hiding under the piano…and then not being so silly and being brave and grown-up.

Flotsam and Jetsam takes us out on the other half of Finland…for only half of Finland is land, the other half of it is water and islands. Flotsam and Jetsam gives us a child's first iceberg…and her first ventures out into the ocean in an open boat…wartime wrecks and a little illegal salvage. What it gives us more of is the light on the water…and how you should properly equip a boat "not a single inessential object" and every necessary thing…and the power of love that can hit you as a sharp wave across the bow as easily as buoying you up in your adventure.

What is evident in all of these tales, and also echoes those from the Summer Book, is that the child is at the heart of all of Jansson's writing. Mostly she uses the child as a specific character, but what she shows us is that it is the child-like that we must seek to retain…to be able to look at the world as we once did, might just be better than looking at it as we now do.

The final third of the book: Travelling Light…is a winter of a different kind. Or an autumn at least. These are the stories written in the last 20 years of Jansson's life (she died aged 86 in 2001)…and tell of relationships and leave-takings. There is the wonderful Squirrel…the harsh, often hurtful, Letters from Klara…admiration in the Messages from a would-be author a world away…and the final painful relief of leaving the island, maybe for the last time.

There is more pain in this third of the book…but no less beauty. Philip Pullman describes Jansson's writing is "as smooth and odd and beautiful as sea-worn driftwood, as full of light and air as the Nordic summer." As I only have the work in translation…I hope it is true. I hope the originals are even more beautiful than these second-hand versions…which themselves smell of the harsh bright light of the northern skies and let you taste the snows and fear the darkness.

Episodic. As beautiful, spiritual and hard to hold as light-play on the waves.

Read, and ponder.

If this is your first encounter with Jansson, we heartily recommend that both The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and for more about the author herself check out Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Author), Boel Westin (Editor), Helen Svensson (Editor), Sarah Death (Translator). You might also appreciate For a Little While by Rick Bass or The Madonna of the Pool by Helen Stancey. For more short stories from Jansson, try The Listener.

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Buy A Winter Book by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Winter Book by Tove Jansson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Winter Book by Tove Jansson at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Winter Book by Tove Jansson at Amazon.com.


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