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.
It 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.)