The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

Book #352

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


TSBWhere do you start when you read the adult works of an author you enjoyed reading as a child?  That was my puzzle when I picked up Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book.
As a child I had read the Moomin stories and still have my copy of Finn Family Moomintroll on my children’s bookshelf.  This, however, was the first time I had read one of her six adult novels.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book that is hailed as a “modern Scandinavian classic”.

What we get is a series of vignettes of life lived on a small, remote island in the Gulf of Finland.  The characters, Grandmother, Papa and Sophia are inspired by Tove Jansson’s own family, her mother, brother and niece.  The island she describes is her family’s.

It is, on the surface, an interesting look into the relationship between Grandmother and Sophia as they live their lives through summer on their tiny island.  Interspersed there is a commentary on death, and life, that is unsurprising considering that Jansson wrote this in the year following the death of her own mother.  It is a lovely, simple, series of uneventful events that occur over a summer.  It is also an interesting look at a different way of living – remote, basic and yet quite fulfilling.

The writing is as simple and straightforward as you could expect.  The descriptions of the island and the environment hold you, like these passages taken from the chapter ‘Sophia’s Storm’.

The walls of the house trembled steadily with the thundering of the sea, and it began to get cold.  Spume from the breakers covered the windowpanes and ran over the sill and across the floor.  Every now and then Papa would get up and go out to see to the boat.

The seas breaking against the sheer outer side of the island had grown.  One after the other, the waves rose up in their white immensity to a tremendous height, and foam hissed against the rocks like the blows of a whip.  Tall curtains of water flew across the island sailed on west.  The storm was titanic!

[…]

Sophia climbed up into the tower.  The tower room was very small and had four windows, one for each point of the compass.  She saw that the island had shrunk and grown terribly small, nothing but an insignificant patch of rocks and colourless earth.  But the sea was immense: white and yellow and grey and horizonless.

At 172 pages, split into nice short observations of events, it is a relaxing and easy read. If you are interested, the image of the island on the book cover above is the Jansson’s island.  A round trip, walking, of about four and a half minutes.  It’s amazing what you can observe of human nature when you physically shrink your world and your mind is your source of inspiration.  This book is a testament to that.

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