My friend Anne from Sweden has arrived. Last time she came to stay she brought Moomin coffee mugs. Her husband sent me an Atlas of Remote Islands and put a gnome in the garden (the gnome disappeared, but there’s been no postcard). This time Anne brought The Summer Book. Gifts tell you a lot about the people who give them. I love the Swedes.
If you didn’t grow up with Moomintroll, Snufkin, Little My, the Hattifatteners and that lot, nothing wrong with growing up a bit more now. They’re classic stories of a family and their friends, all different, all needing love in different ways. They have adventures. All ends well. Tove Jansson is both the illustrator and the writer.
Jansson was an interesting woman, fiercely intelligent and independent – recognised as a literary icon with her strange and enchanting characters and gentle storytelling. Philip Pullman on the book cover of The Summer Book declares “Tove Jansson was a genius.” I agree. I was enraptured by Moominland as a child and transported by this book.
It’s the story of a six year old girl, her father and grandmother on their summer island. It is one of thousands in the Gulf of Finland, home to just the one summer house, and they leave in winter when it is snow covered. It feels very Scandinavian. The island barely rises above the sea; there is a rocky shoreline, some trees. Most things start with a boat trip. Sophia’s father fishes and works (unexplained) and the girl and her grandmother hang out together. They’ve both got tempers; they’re judgemental and moody; the grandmother is frail, cantankerous and sleeps a lot and Sophia can be stroppy. Sometimes the grandmother plays along and sometimes she doesn’t.
It’s a short book, each chapter a perfect short story featuring the relationship of the grandmother and the girl. Things happen, but nothing much changes. There are no lessons, but there is always insight.
In one chapter Sophia gets a cat, Moppy, who ignores her. “He was the same colour as the island – a light yellowish grey with striped shadings like granite, or like sunlight on a sand bottom. When he skipped across the meadow by the beach, his progress was like a stroke of wind through the grass.” Sophia loves him, carries him around, but the cat walks away, breaking her heart. The cat goes feral. He brings in mice and dismembered birds. “You know,” Sophia said, “sometimes I think I hate Moppy. I don’t have the strength to go on loving him, but I think about him all the time.” Visitors arrive with a cat called Fluff who likes to be petted. He didn’t catch mice. They agree to swap cats. After a week or so of petting, Sophia comments that nice weather gets to be boring. The cat purrs and rolls over. He doesn’t hunt or do cat things. Sophia cries to her Grandmother and wants Moppy back.“It’ll be awful,” said Sophia gravely. “But it’s Moppy I love.”
There is a storm, visitors, new neighbours, experiments with flowers. Sophia goes through a superstitious phase and Grandmother negotiates her way though all of this, complaining about her sore legs, getting old and tired.
The thing that distinguishes this book and prevents these stories becoming saccharine is the depth of the characters. Grandmother is no sweet old lady, but pretty fierce (perhaps a bit Tove herself) and Sophia tells her she hates her and bullies her and loves her. It’s hard to know who has the upper hand, but their complicated friendship is very believable and clearly full of love.
It’s an interesting story of a summer, told in the sparse, understated language of Jansson’s children’s books, vignettes of a spirited pair of women two generations apart.
I googled ‘Scandi style’: Scandinavian design is characterized by a minimal, clean approach that seeks to combine functionality with beauty. Its focus is on simple lines and light spaces, devoid of clutter.