The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book - Tove JanssonThe Summer Book – Tove Jansson
NYRB Classics, 2008 (translated by Thomas Teal, published in Swedish in 1972)

Oh, Tove Jansson. I feel as if I was destined to fall in love with your story. Your characters. Your observations of life. Of course, I should have known. After the endless praise by other book bloggers. After seeing Moomin merchandise every where in Sweden. Maybe I should not have waited this long to give one of your books a try. On the other hand, having been in Sweden, getting acquainted with a few Finnish people who I now consider my friends, this book felt extra special to me.

The Summer Book consists of twenty-two short stories, or rather, short glimpses into the life of Sophia, a six-year-old girl, and her grandmother, who spend their vacation on a small island in Finland. It could be one vacation, one summer, it sometimes feels like it is, but the fragments are non-linear, and I could not tell you if they cover one, or three years.

What I loved:

  • The descriptions of life on an island. As isolated & complete. Having everything you need, but nothing more. This makes the atmosphere that is described very pure. I wonder if this is what makes Jansson’s observations of the relationship between Sophia and her grandmother, of their ways of dealing with things, so direct and easy to grasp and beautiful.
  • Both Sophia and her grandmother are taken seriously. They are persons in their own right. With their own thoughts, feelings and manners. With their own flaws. These flaws are openly named, exposed, but they do not keep grandmother and child from loving each other. You can feel it everywhere in the story. This bond.
  • Sophia, as a child, is taken seriously. Even if her outbursts could have been viewed as simply childish, or as obstinacy, they are not described as such.
  • The melancholy. It feels weird to say you love the melancholic feel of a story, but in this case, it is so very true. The death of Sophia’s mother is all around. It is everywhere in the story, even if it is only named once or twice. But there is no hiding it, no walking on your toes because we shouldn’t disturb the child by mentioning death. No, when Sophia asks her grandmother when she will die, her grandmother answers “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.” And it is this direct approach that makes me respect Tove Jansson so much. She does not cuddle the children in her story. There is realism. Kindness, but also realism.
  • The many many beautiful observations on life. Small things. Or small things that signify bigger things. I have written 4 sides of A4 paper in quotes. Things I want to remember. I wish I could mention them all. The observations on the lives of angleworms, “Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.” Words that could be applied to worms, but also to the life described in the book, the life of the grandmother and Sophia who are trying to keep their life together.

But no, I will not keep you longer, with more quotes, more observations. I will simply tell you to read this book and find your own gems to cherish.

One last quote, maybe. I read this when I had been back in the Netherlands for about a month. In Sweden, a Finnish girl, Emmi, became a very dear friend. She used to describe nature, the beauty of winter, summer, but also the melancholy she would often feel, in ways I could not but remember when I read Jansson’s words. Especially, the passage on the approach of winter. And because I miss Emmi, and Elsa, a lot, I had to remember it here:

Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.

This book counts towards Zommie’s Nordic Challenge, as well as my personal NYRB Project.

21 thoughts on “The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

  1. nymeth

    So glad you loved it, Iris! I completely agree with pretty much everything you said. Such a beautiful book, and so moving in its own quiet, gentle way.

  2. Sandy

    The effect this book had on you is almost tangible in your review. Wonderful job! I’ve heard nothing but incredible things about this author, but you know how it is when you have thirty (or a hundred?) books vying for your attention. I’m going to do it though…going to have to track down one of these books!

  3. Teresa (Lovely Treez Reads)

    I loved the Moomins as a child and managed to find a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll in a charity shop recently so I can introduce my daughter to the delights of this wonderful writer. This sounds excellent too. Thanks, Iris.

  4. Karoliina

    Hello Iris, I’m Karoliina from Finland, nice to meet you.🙂

    I’m so glad you loved this book. Actually I haven’t read this yet myself, and only one other of Tove Jansson’s books for adults. But being Finnish Moomins are of course a very integral part of me. And this year, as a personal challenge, I intend to read much more “Jansson for adults”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone saying the books would be bad.

  5. Susan E

    Beautiful review! I just finished this book, reading slower and slower as I got to the end, because I didn’t want it to end…

  6. JoAnn

    I bought this shortly after reading Nymeth’s glowing. Why is it still on my shelf unread? Clearly, it can’t remain there much longer!

  7. Eva

    You’re killing me: my library doesn’t have this one! I think I’m going to put in a purchase request, and if that fails, try to ILL it.

  8. rebeccareid

    I love the sound of this. Added to my to read list. I have a special spot for Scandinavia although I’ve never been there. I have a Norwegian and Swedish heritage on my dad’s side and I also had Finnish roommates for a year or more in college!

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