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Rain Taxi
Monday, September 13th, 2010
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The Summer Book (New York Review Books Classics)

by Tove Jansson

On an Island

A review by Erin M. Bertram

Given its title, you might think this novel by Finnish author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) would be perfectly suited to beach sand, fashion magazines, and sunburn. But The Summer Book -- part imagined memoir, part grief narrative, part travelogue in two voices -- is anything but a typical light summer read, even though the language is accessible and it takes place on an island.

Originally published in 1972, The Summer Book features seventeen of Jansson's instantly recognizable illustrations. Jansson is the author of the world-popular Moomin series about a family of loveable, stubborn creatures who resemble chubby hippopotamuses -- a series Jansson rendered in both children's books and comic strips. She grew up in a Swedish-speaking family, spending winters in a cabin on an island off the coast of Finland, and she lived much of her adult life on a small island in the Finnish archipelago.

The Summer Book could have been subtitled "Coastal Studies," as each of the book's twenty-one vignettes acts less as a complete narrative and more as a dock on the shore -- a starting off point, and a point of return. In it, almost everything Jansson's characters do, say, think, and even wear is informed by the sunny, abbreviated space in which they live, a small island in the Gulf of Finland daily governed by the whims of weather and tide. It's a space where, as Jansson writes, "Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure, and self-sufficient place." The island's human inhabitants are a family of three, but the island deserves character status all its own, a constant, pressing, presence in each of the character's lives.

Grandmother is aging, frank, loosely maternal, and quietly creative, if a bit cantankerous. When, in the middle of the night, rain floods the model of Venice she and Sophia had built the previous day, she responds with stoic equanimity:

Grandmother stood gazing at this scene for quite a while; then she turned and went home. She lit the lamp and got out her tools and a suitable piece of balsa wood and put on her glasses.

Sophia, her granddaughter, is petulant, though not without the curious streak and resolve common in six-year-olds. Here's an excerpt of Sophia dictating to Grandmother a field guide she's writing entitled Of Angleworms and Others:

"Jesus," Sophia burst out. "This is serious. Don't say anything. Write: I hate field mice. No. Write: I hate field mice, but I don't like it when they die."

The third member of the family is Father, a nearly nonexistent character who, through much of the book, appears preoccupied or concerned, always working outside or in his room, away from the others, though sometimes building fires or making sandwiches for everyone. Near the end of the book, Sophia admits to Grandmother, "I like it when he's working...I always know he's there."

Father plays a small but important supporting role in the book, acting as a staid, steady counterbalance to Grandmother and Sophia's vigor and feist. In The Summer Book, the point of view is technically third-person omniscient, but the rapport between Sophia and Grandmother creates a shared viewpoint in the novel, their sensibilities not so much opposed as entwined, gone the way of two vines climbing a railing month after month. By book's end, it's difficult to distinguish who's the protagonist.

This is a book about how life and death, as well as love and loss, exist in easy companionship like Grandmother and Sophia -- attendants to one another, weights on an ever-balancing scale: "Sophia asked her grandmother what Heaven looked like, and Grandmother said it might be like the pasture they were just then walking by on their way to the village." Here, the sentimental is nowhere to be found, not even under the smooth, flat stones stacked awkwardly on the sandy beach beside the family's simple home. In the book, Sophia's mother -- Grandmother's daughter or daughter-in-law, Father's wife -- has recently died, a fact mentioned only once, in a single sentence, leaving a family of four now a family of three. Sophia takes note of the change, one night, when she realizes that, for the first time in her life, she doesn't have to share a bed. The beloved's absence is felt in the spaces she used to fill.

In its achingly austere beauty, The Summer Book is whimsical, intimate, and profound, anything but an airy compendium of seaside encounters. On the back cover, a blurb from The Guardian claims the book "makes you slow down, forget about everyday hassle and float off into a sunny, blissful reverie." Well, yes and no. Jansson's rich, remote island backdrop and tendency toward diffuse moments of lyricism will make the reader slow down:

Small pieces of bark and the splinters of old storms rocked in the water beyond the rim of ice, drawn slowly out and in again by a feeble swell. It was very close to sunrise, and the fog out over the sea was already suffused with light. The long-tailed ducks kept up their steady call, distant and melodious.

But you won't forget about longing, grief, and loneliness, not entirely, because Jansson won't let you. Each of Sophia and Grandmother's daily adventures -- an early morning swim in a forbidden ravine, a magic forest populated by carved wooden figures -- is skewered with its own unforeseen challenges. Sophia gets lonely and scared in a tent at night, and Grandmother is always aware, on some level, of her declining health. And so, Jansson's book manages to achieve both sides of the fairy-tale coin: its idyllic setting renders the book charming, and romantic, but, as in her Moomin works, a shadowy underbelly is always within reach.

There's an exposed quality about The Summer Book, as when you spend too long in the sun and the world takes on a gauzy clarity it didn't have before. It's deceptively simple, refreshingly unembellished, distilled, grounded in sensory experience, and absolutely direct. It's comforting for precisely the same reasons it's unsettling, like standing on the shore looking across a dark sea at a horizon you swear you could almost touch.

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