Best known for creating the Moomin stories for children, writer and artist Tove Jansson was also the author of ten novels for adults.
The Summer Book is one of these. However, it is the sort of story that at first glance doesn’t seem to be about very much at all. Jansson’s writing simply seems wonderfully observant; she has the ability to notice and describe in detail scenery, people and the settings in which they find themselves. On closer inspection, however, the reader realises that a lot more is going on: Jansson is encouraging us to see the beauty and significance in everyday life – in its rhythms and chores.
The novel takes the reader to a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, where six-year-old Sophia is spending the summer with her father and her grandmother, who is an artist. But while the descriptions of the flora and fauna that manage to survive on the island are undeniably life-affirming, we discover that death is in the background. At the start of book, Sophia wakes up one April night, remembering that she and her family are once more on the island; however, she also quickly realises that she has the bed to herself – because her mother is now dead.
These thoughts of death continue. In the first chapter Sophia helps her grandmother search for her false teeth in the garden, diving beneath the flowering canopy and creeping among the green stalks and stems until she finds them, hands them to her grandmother and asks, ‘When are you going to die?’ To which Grandmother responds, ‘Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.’
As the summer months progress, the old woman and the child learn about each other – their fears, moods and their mutual yearning for independence. Grandmother, while old, with weak legs and prone to dizziness, has great wisdom and a lively imagination. She is Sophia’s companion throughout the summer, and the pair roam the island together – exploring its forests, shores and caves.
But just as the book explores their friendship, it also examines their relationships with the island, its nature and its inhabitants. Sophia attempts to make a new friend of a girl called Pipsan, who comes to visit, and tries, with limited success, to become intimate with a cat called Moppy:
‘Sophia carried the cat back to the cottage and tried as hard as she could to ingratiate herself, but the more love she gave it, the quicker it fled back to the dish box.’
‘Its funny about love,’ Sophia said, ‘the more you love someone the less he likes you back.’
‘That’s very true,’ Grandmother observed, ‘and then what do you do?’
This conversation is typical of the dialogue throughout The Summer Book: the characters say what they need to straightforwardly and without any niceties. It as if they feel that words are valuable – a sense that adds depths of meaning to their conversations.
Indeed, the power of this book lies in the simplicity of Jansson’s language, and this is perhaps why The Summer Book is widely regarded as a modern classic of Scandinavian literature.
Reviewed by Annika Sagen
THE SUMMER BOOK
Written by Tove Jansson
Translated from the Finnish by Thomas Teal
Published by Sort of Books (2003)
Annika Sagen is an avid reader and aspiring book reviewer with a particular interest in literature in translation. She lives in London with her cat; apart from literature her interests are photography, upcycling, art, salsa and jazz.