Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Tove Jansson: The Summer Book

The Summer BookIt may make me a Bad Finn, but I’ve never properly read the Moomin books. As a child I was uninterested; as a teenager, I found them creepy. (Yes, I was a wuss of a teenager.) Only now in my twenties I’m beginning to discover Tove Jansson, the National Treasure, through her novels for grown-ups – and I’m rather glad of this. So many great children’s writers are wasted on the young.

To my surprise, The Summer Book seems to be something of a minor cult book in English-speaking countries; several of my British and American friends have recommended it to me (shouldn’t it be vice versa?). At the same time this seems to be a book you either ‘get’ or not. In its child-like simplicity and preoccupation with small everyday detail, I can understand why some might find it slight, even inconsequential – and as it’s a collection of short episodes (though officially called a ‘novel’) it hasn’t got enough structure to everybody’s taste. For me, however, the simplicity and seeming slightness, as well as the episodic structure with its unclear chronology, were all part of the book’s charm.

And ‘charming’ is really the word I’d use to describe it – charming, and beautiful. Like many Finnish families, the family of the little girl Sophia spend their summers on an isolated island. Her mother is dead, and her father – presumably a writer of some sort – is a shadowy figure, engrossed in his work. She therefore spends most of her time with her acerbic Grandmother. Their relationship is very close, at times even claustrophobic: they seem to stick together as much out of necessity as fondness. The young and the old are outsiders in equal measure. Sophia questions everything, and the Grandmother has an eccentric, rebellious streak about her – their conversations and sometimes strange projects to pass the time make for surprisingly interesting and powerful reading, especially as the Grandmother insists on treating Sophia as her equal, even though they’re not always on the same page at all. The book is remarkably unsentimental in its treatment of this disparity.

How much of the book is autobiographical? Jansson’s niece is also called Sophia, and The Summer Book is said to have been inspired by their relationship; but Jansson herself was only 58 when the book was first published in 1972, and I’m astounded by the way the shadow of death gives this little book such a distinctly melancholy undertone.

The melancholy resides in the nostalgic descriptions of nature as well. I can’t help wondering where the Finn in me ends and the general reader begins. Did I enjoy this book so much only because the sights, the sounds, even the smells in it reminded me of my childhood by the Finnish seaside? I don’t think anybody has ever captured the essence of Finland this well: the sense of place permeates every word. But perhaps that’s precisely why the book is so popular abroad. Go deep enough in the local, and you strike at the universal.

Final Verdict: Beautiful, melancholy, funny, and unusual – but not for anybody looking for Obviously Big Themes or rip-roaring plots. Can’t wait to read A Winter Book now.

Sort Of Books, paperback, 2003; 160 pp.; ISBN: 0954221710 (Original Swedish title Sommarboken.)

6 comments on “Tove Jansson: The Summer Book

  1. Catherine Czerkawska
    October 22, 2007

    Wonderful book and excellent review Leena, with which I completely agree.
    I dramatised this for BBC Radio a few years ago, but it took years, literally, to get it through – so many editors just didn’t get it! Once it was broadcast, however, the feedback was very positive. I do find that my Scottish friends appreciate the book and wonder if there is something similar about the Scots and the Finns. Having lived in Finland for a couple of years, I find that it always brings that time flooding back to me – I reread it quite often.
    I’d be interested, though, to know if it’s one of those books that women instantly love, while men are more equivocal.
    Catherine

  2. Ariadne
    October 22, 2007

    Thanks for this excellent review of one of my favourite writers. I am a huge Moomin fan, I recommend the books to anyone, I find them some of the best writing I’ve ever read. I read the Winter Book the other week, the first of Jansson’s adult writing I’ve read. I enjoyed it very much but didn’t admire it as much as I do the Moomins – this may very well be because of the nostalgia factor. But on the other hand, another children’s writer I thoroughly admire is Alan Garner, and to me his adult and children’s books are equally brilliant.

    It’s great to know that she captures finland perfectly, I would have guessed that she had anyway, though I’ve never been to Finland, but even from the Moomins I felt that I knew just what it was like. Such a fantastic sense of place.
    interesting also to think of it from the POV of a finnish person, Moomins being HUGE in Finland (wow, was I thrilled when I found you could get Moomin biscuits) but cult in the UK – perhaps as a result British readers are more disposed to admire the Moomins, whereas to Finnish readers they seem a bit institutionalised…?

    p.s. I want to call my daughter (if I ever have one) Tove! 🙂 🙂

  3. Jackie
    October 23, 2007

    This sounds like a lovely book, the description of armosphere & memories especially pique my nterest. Much to my chagrin, I’ve never heard of this author, but I will definitely be looking for her at the library.
    And Leena, I knew you were wrong when you were disparaging your own upcoming reviews. You silly! This one was quite evocative & I’m sure the others will good too.

  4. Amy Snowe
    October 23, 2007

    That was an excellent review Leena, well done! It really makes me want to go to Finland, pronto! If only *somebody* would issue me a VIP invitation! Hint hint! Only joking Leens! I don’t know why, I’ve never heard of either the book or the author, but from your review, it reminds me of Alice Hoffman and also of the Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Strange, that…..

    (By the way, I’m sorry I haven’t answered your email/letter yet, I’ve been super busy – and stressed!)

  5. Leena
    October 24, 2007

    Catherine, I think you’re right that it’s more of a women’s book than men’s. And that’s interesting what you say about Scots and Finns; perhaps there really is a temperamental similarity. (By the way, on my old blog I got a fair number of hits from people who were Googling ‘tove jansson summer book dramatization catherine czerkawska’ so obviously many people are looking for it. I’d love to hear it too.)

    Ariadne, sounds like I’ll have to rectify my early error and familiarise myself with the Moomin books one of these days! I think The Summer Book is supposed to be better than A Winter Book, but I don’t know, never having read the latter. I’ve never read any Garner either – where should I begin? (I think Tove is a lovely name, by the way, but the poor girl might be doomed to a lifetime of misspellings and -pronunciations… ;-))

    Jackie, *do* read the book if you can find it. I think you’d love it.

    Amy, I must look up Magic Faraway Tree now… What would you recommend by Alice Hoffman?

    Everybody’s welcome to stay with me in Finland, as long as they don’t mind an hysterical Dobermann constantly barking, growling, and poking at them with her nose!!

  6. Emily
    October 24, 2007

    Leena, this book charmed me, too. And thanks Amy for reminding me about Alice Hoffman – I loved ‘Blue Diary’ and ‘Illumination Night’ and have been meaning to read more of her.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2007 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction in translation and tagged , .

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