Published by Kettle Magazine 23/07/2014
Despite recent thunderstorms, summer is – apparently – upon us, and so are a wealth of articles recommending the best summer reads. Depending on your taste everyone’s summer read is different, but for me, there is none better than Tove Jansson’s understated work, The Summer Book. After all, it’s there in the title really, isn’t it?
Interwoven Short Stories
Tove Jansson was a Finnish writer and artist who unfortunately died in 2001. She’s probably best known as the creator of The Moomin Stories for children, but The Summer Book was reportedly her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults later in life.
A quaint, simplistic, and incredibly beautiful book, it charts one summer in the life of an elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter, as they retire once again to a small scraping of an island in the Gulf of Finland. The book holds together as a series of intricately woven chapters charting the long and lonely summer months, each of which can easily be read as standalone short stories, but which reveal far more when read together as a whole.
An Artist’s Child
Six-year-old Sophia wakes in the night at the end of spring, and remembers that she doesn’t have to share a bed this year because her mother is dead. As her father buries himself in work, her one companion is her grandmother who, although dizzy, weak, and none-too-steady on her creaking limbs, becomes the little girl’s companion as the seasons change and the island begins to bloom.
Isolated together in a cabin in the middle of the vast ocean, grandmother and granddaughter learn to adapt to each other’s whims, roaming the island together, sleeping under bushes, and creating one little girl’s wonderland to share between them. They spend hours in ‘the magic forest’ tidying the ground, they unearth a seal’s skull and turn it into an enduring summer sculpture on the beach, and as the nights fall and the sun never truly dies, they lay in front of the burning stove that has become the centre of their insular lives.
A Tale of Life
Beneath the simplicity of this novel, lies a life-affirming tale examining the birth of seasons and the death of those closest to us. Quite out of the blue during one of their many games of make-believe, Sophia asks her grandmother:
“When are you going to die?”
“Soon,” Grandmother answers. “But that is not the least concern of yours”.
Under the surface of their joyful summer escape, lies a wounded little girl and her aging best friend, each seeing the world through different eyes, and teaching each other how best to live. Within the pine glades and storm-tossed seas that batter the dark rocks into oblivion, is a whole new story of what it means to be too young and too old in one small family.
In a world where night never truly falls, the duo’s compulsion to never waste the daylight is infectious. At all hours they carve boats out of bark and swim in the darkening sea. Jansson perfectly captures the love the Finnish people have for the sun; a symptom of an island of people who live so much of their lives in the dark.
A must-read for the summer
But it’s the author’s unique mix of a mother’s humour, an artist’s concept of beauty, and a child’s innocent grasp of psychology, that makes The Summer Book one of the great forgotten classics of Scandinavian literature.
Indeed, the book has never been out of print in Scandinavia, and the allure of summer permeates every page. It’s a hard book to categorise, being not quite a work of fiction, not quite new age philosophy, not quite action-packed enough to be called an adventure novel, and not quite laugh-out-loud enough to be truly recognised as comedy.
Despite an inability to slot it neatly into a category though, it is something truly sublime. Tove Jansson is one of the great forgotten geniuses of 20th century literature, and to read this book is to fall in love with life, and summer, all over again.
If you read one book in the warmer days to come, make it this one.