The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

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The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Deception, truth, honour, friendship and self-interest blur in an intriguing tale set in the northern wastes as only Jansson can depict them. Wide open spaces focus lives into small corners. Elegant, sharp, remorseless.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2009
Publisher: Sort of Books
ISBN: 978-0954899578

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Most people of my age will have come across Jansson's work unwittingly, via the televised renditions of the Moomin tales. The readers amongst us would then have been entranced a few years ago to discover that at last Thomas Teal had set about the translation into English, first of The Summer Book and then of a collection of short stories which were published as A Winter Book.

If you've been anywhere near the northern latitudes, either in Jansson's home of Finland, or elsewhere in Scandinavia, or in other parts of the world which bear the uncanny resemblances that places do when they contend with the same vicissitudes of distance and weather… if you've been there even in the mildness of Summer… you will know how sparse it is, how fragile, how vivid.

If you know that: you understand the essence of Tove Jansson.

Jansson was in her fifties before she began writing for adults, and 68 when The True Deceiver was first published. It's interesting that her translator should have started his work – I'm blissfully trusting he'll work his way through the canon – with The Summer Book and then chose to link the shorts collection in an oppositional seasonal framework. Jansson's work does seem to sit in the extremes of the year: a function perhaps of the latitude of her homeland, which doesn't have the autumns and springs of those of living further south or blessed by the mitigating Gulf Stream. At those latitudes, perhaps the equinoctial times are so short, that the extremes are the norm.

The True Deceiver is another 'winter book'.

It was an ordinary dark winter morning and snow was still falling. No window in the village showed a light. Darkness, isolation, snow. Vivid. Slightly unworldly. Yet ordinary. In those two opening sentences the spirit of everything that follows is captured. This is a tale so ordinary, so unworldly, that it's difficult to know what to make of it.

Like a fairy tale it draws you in, spins tales of impending doom, promises a moral message, entices you to cheer and to hiss. Then makes you slip on the ice, so that you can't quite be sure when you regain your footing, which side you were on.

In this village which shows no lights on an ordinary dark winter morning, there lives one Katri Kling. She lives in the attic above the storekeeper's shop with her brother Mats and her dog that has no name. Mats is a little slow, but he will do simple jobs well and with great care and attention, and he loves books – adventure stories, especially if they involve the sea. He helps out all around the village, but especially down at the boatyard. He is very good when it comes to boats.

Katri is good with numbers. And other people's problems. She has no legal training, but has a mind for a kind of justice. She is unfailingly honest. Unremittingly honest. This is her strength, her one single weapon against the world. She plays fair.

Ah, but she plays.

This is what people do not notice. They notice the fairness, and forget the play. Katri has an endgame in view.

Up on the hill lives Miss Aemelin, an eccentric Beatrix Potter type creature. She is an illustrator of children's books. Her skill is in realistic, minutely detailed pictures of the forest floor. But her books feature rabbits, with strangely flowery fur. Much of her time is taken up on writing to her young fans, and trying to keep the house the way her parents always wanted it to be. The rabbit house, it is called by the villagers.

Katri plans for her and Mats (and the dog with no name) to also live in the rabbit house. But plan she must, and move carefully.

What follows could be discounted as a Finnish Gaslight as our (anti-)heroine makes her moves towards her goal, but for the character of Miss Aemelin. The illustrator is weak in many ways, but she is not blind and she sees what is happening. Jansson's trick is to give her elderly protagonist flashes of insight, of rage, of cunning that undermine Katri's works, so that the whole becomes almost a battle of wills.


At times the goals are shared and the conflict diminishes.

At times they seem even to collude.

But then, there is Mats – and there is the dog. These two innocent souls will prove to be the crux of all else that follows.

The True Deceiver is about deception and truth. It shows how they can be mutually inclusive: how the truth is used to deceive, and deception uncovers deeper truths. It is about how we deceive each other, why we might allow ourselves to be deceived and when we set about self-deception. It is about self-perception. It is about power.

Being set in a small community, it cannot help but also revolve around the pettiness of everyday life. He said, she said, adult jealousies and the sniping and snowballing of children. Witch, witch, witch, they chant. Children can hate and mock. Children can be enchanted by rabbits with flowery fur. Such are the dichotomies of the world, Jansson tells us. Is it any wonder we grow into such adults?

All of which is just plot.

And a Jansson novel is never 'just plot'.

It is place. The echoing emptiness of the path from the village to the house on the hill. The remoteness of the light-house only two miles away. The freezing of the bay cutting off everyone from everywhere else until the spring. That ability to simply haul things out onto the ice, in the knowledge that time will bring the melt, and the sinking, and all will be gone. These things can only exist in the landscape that Jansson knew, that she paints with few spare words. Two hundred pages gives no space for long lyrical passages, so exactly how does she manage to fill them with poetry?

I've got this far without using the words 'beautiful' or 'haunting' so I'm not going to answer that question. Ali Smith, in her introduction, describes the work as 'most deceptively quiet'. She is right. Quiet in the way that the forest is quiet… until you really listen.

If you've enjoyed The Summer Book and A Winter Book, you won't be disappointed with the latest offering from 'Sort of' Books. As for me, I'm just hoping translator Teal is hard at work on another instalment.

For more up-to-date takes on life in the north you could try At the Edge of Light by Maria Peura – but it has to be said that Jansson is a hard act to follow.

Booklists.jpg The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson is in the Bookbag's Christmas Gift Recommendations 2009.

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