A short essay on
Tove Jansson: The Summer Book
by Megan Ratner

Books: The Essential Insider's Guide
(Fang Duff Kahn, 2009)
Mark Strand, Editor

 

Like most English-language readers, I was introduced as a child to Tove Jansson through her exceptional Moomin series.  Many years later, I came upon a second-hand copy of The Summer Book, first published in 1972, thrilled to find that she also wrote for adults.

Set on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, the novel consists of vignettes, postcards from summers shared by a motherless six-year-old, Sophia and her artist grandmother.  Sophia’s father is also present, though only just, since interaction and dialogue are limited to the two females.  I know this all sounds perilously twee; fortunately, The Summer Book is bracing as the Baltic Sea.

Carefully observing the natural world, Sophia, and her grandmother also observe each other.  The hardscrabble setting contributes to a timeless, unsentimental feel.  “On an island, the grandmother thinks, everything is complete.”

Jansson based the characters on her own recently deceased mother and on her niece.  They often bicker but never discuss the dead mother, though death figures in more than a few of their conversations.   Sophia and her grandmother draw “awful things,” build Venice in a marsh pool, row to other islands, swim and sleep. It’s a rare picture of non-romantic love, of two individuals, decades apart, attempting to figure out who the other one is.  Jansson leavens the tenderness with a great deal of pragmatism, even toughness.  “It was a dreadful disappointment,” the grandmother admits as Sophia wails after being left out of her father’s excursion to a passing ocean liner, “but blow your nose anyway.  You look awful.”

The Summer Book is delicate but not precious.  Jansson’s plain language plumbs emotional depths without resorting to bromides, the memorable result enchanting as a stint on Jansson’s summer island.