The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A simple tale with a true sense of family and of place. The characters and the place are real and warm and welcoming. This was the first of Jansson's that I read a decade or so ago and I've loved it ever since.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: May 2003
Publisher: Sort of Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0954221713

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Tove Jansson's short novel about Summer is several worlds away from the Moomintrolls she is most famous for outside her native Scandinavia. Book yourself an afternoon this Summer, and take yourself and The Summer Book somewhere quiet, preferably within sight and sound of the sea, settle back and prepare to be transported.

An island in the Gulf of Finland.
Sophia – 6 years old when she "woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead".
Grandmother – who really was born in the 1800s and who will die "quite soon"

These are the main characters in The Summer Book. There are others who pass through briefly, or who, like Papa, always working at his desk or putting out or taking in the nets, are "there". His being there is clearly far more important than anything he might do. This is the one clue we get to the fact that Sophia feels the loss of her mother.

The picture - for this is a picture, rather than a tale - focuses squarely on Summer, The Island, Sophia and Grandmother. It tells of the complicity of infancy and elderness. A child, still innocent and questioning and playful. An elder, dispensing wisdom, regaining innocence and playfulness.

""I want to go swimming" the child said. She waited for opposition, but none came. So she took off her clothes, slowly and nervously. She glanced at her grandmother – you can't depend upon people who just let things happen."

Sophia gets into the water but, under cover of cold and distraction, gets out again… Grandmother doesn't comment, but makes a mental note "to tell him this child is still afraid of deep water". Throughout, Grandmother stands by almost as a guardian angel, watching over Sophia but allowing her to grow into herself. Letting her find her own limits and praising her when she breaks through them "And brave too, because I could see you were scared…"- but always complicit. She sneaks cigarettes in Sophia's company, and wanders out onto the promontory where both are forbidden to go, because "he" is asleep and will never know. She is drawn into Sophia's games: the rebuilding of Venice in the marsh pond, the secret society for the protection of Queen Berenice. When Sophia cannot spell quickly enough to write she takes dictation of the book on the study of angleworms - a too clear illustration of the role of amanuensis she has taken on far more widely: but with a little editing she is helping Sophia to write her life.

At the same time, however, she is painfully aware that her own is slipping away from her. She will die "quite soon" but that worries her less than being unable to remember what it was like to sleep in a tent, less than never having told an old boyfriend that she doesn't really like sherry, less than never having really talked to anyone about what any of it was really like and the fact that that means it might all be so lost as to never have been.

In between the games and the growing up and the growing old Sophia and Grandmother have serious philosophical debates. They discuss what it is to be an Angleworm, to be hooked as bait or chopped by the digging spade and hence the book that Sophia must write, but also they talk about God and debate the ins and outs of heaven and hell (if indeed there is a hell?). If you have the skill to debate the meaning of life with a six-year-old, then your primary weapon is humour, disguised as pragmatism.

"Sophia asked how God could keep track of all the people who prayed at the same time. "He's very, very smart", Grandmother mumbled sleepily under her hat. "Answer really," Sophia said. "how does He have time?" "He has secretaries…""

This is a delightful image that will stay with me always.

Indeed there is much humour in the book, but I am loathe to give more of it away. It should be stumbled across as the best beach treasures always are.

So much for the people. What of the island? The island is a mystery, made more so by the Foreword to the "Sort of Books" edition that I read. Ester Freud visits the island where Tove Jansson spent her summers, yet I feel this is not The Island, merely the inspiration for it. Sophia's island is not large, but less tiny certainly. Large enough for "The Road" to intrude. Never read an introduction before you've read the book. I'm glad I didn't.

The unnamed island is no mere backdrop. The landscape and the seascape in these reaches merge into each other, interchangeable, as storms steal swathes of land only to reluctantly hand them back in time, but land and sea live and breathe and have moods of their own. After a night's rain "the bare granite steamed". The magic forest, fighting against the wind at the island's edge "formed a mass of stubborn resignation". "The whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her", while out there were "confused puffs of cloud" or "small angry waves"…and of course "bogs go right on behaving like bogs".

One of the fundamental strands of The Summer Book is the interaction of the Family with the land, and how the basic connection is being lost. The artistic Grandmother carves her figures only "old wood that has found its form", drawing out what is already there, whilst Papa plants alien tress and bulbs and must go to extreme lengths then to nourish and protect them, and Sophia wonders how you tell exactly what is a herb. Old habits die hard though. Grandmother preserves the superstitions even as she condemns them. She will ensure they live on. People continue to harvest the sea - even if the harvest is salvage rather than fish, but the nets too are still used in the old ways.

Then too, there is time. The book is structured as though we wander through a single summer, but to read carefully shows this isn't so. Grandmother perceptibly becomes less certain, and adolescent moods sneak in upon Sophia. Yet Summer is always summer. Long dry days, sudden storms, spring into autumn one way or another.

This is a work of memory not of imagination. The descriptions of the animals and the birds, and the land itself, that small vulnerable space, could only come from the pen of some-one who had lived it. It is a gentle rendering of a world away from here and now. A world where making something PRIVATE is an insult inviting challenge, a world where padlocks will be dismantled or broken as either protest or through need, a world where, if you belong, you would neither mark your boundary nor lock your door. Nor would you need to. A world where your summer abode is left such that those who may have need, will use it and leave it as they found it, with the wood replenished and the stove left open (for fear it may rust shut).

Jansson's book evokes a true sense of family and of place. The characters and the place are real and warm and welcoming. The harshnesses of life just happen "and Don't blame God". That she does all of this in under 200 pages and with language simple enough for a child (or an elder) to read and to love is indeed genius.

Summer is the bridge between Spring and Autumn, and Jansson seems to suggest we should cross and re-cross that bridge at will.

Come the summer, I will find a quiet spot to read this again.

The Summer Book (Sommerboken) was first published in 1972. The current edition, available in paperback from "Sort Of books" is translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal. Sadly I cannot comment on the original, but the lyricism of the translation speaks of something truly special and worthy of being the Classic it recognised to be in its homeland. This edition includes photographs from Jansson's own island that give a taste of where the episodes lie…for me it also brought back memories of a walking holiday in Finland, which suggest that the world in those northern reaches is still surviving, changed, but not yet despoiled.

I came back to this book yet again having read Letters from Tove by Tove Jansson (Author), Boel Westin (Editor), Helen Svensson (Editor), Sarah Death (Translator) - a longer read, but then who doesn't want a longer summer.

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