Friday, November 12, 2010

The Summer Book

No matter what part of the globe one calls home, summertime contains a certain magic. For me, it means talc-fine white sand shores, warm, clear blue water and a breezy spot in the shade to which I retreat when the sun blazes too brightly.

For an impetuous young girl and her physically fragile yet mentally agile old grandmother, summer is a tiny island off the Finnish coast where they, together with the young girl's father (also the grandmother's son), are the only human inhabitants.

Tove Jansson's The Summer Book was her first adult novel and is touted as her best-loved. Never out of print in its native Scandanavia since initial publication in 1972, this short and very bittersweet read draws largely from the author's own life. Perhaps this is what makes it so special. There is a saying that truth can be better than fiction, but this novel marries them so perfectly it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Jansson's prose is the kind I love, though credit must certainly be given to her translator. She uses simple few words that tell a great many things. Descriptions are anything but flowery and her narrative is straightforward, yet each chapter, on average four pages long, is a short story in itself.

"A small island, on the other hand, takes care if itself. It drinks melting snow and spring rain and, finally, dew, and if there is a drought, the island waits for the next summer and grows its flowers then instead, the flowers are used to it, and wait quietly in their roots."

The best part about this book is the relationship between the two women. Grandmother knows Sophia so well that she can defuse a potentially dangerous situation with a few simple words. She is wisdom personified and equal parts common sense and imagination. Sophia is a temperamental and capricious child, but is also wise beyond her years in a way children these days seldom are. Their exchanges are alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching.

Readers looking for a feel-good story about a grandmother and granddaughter will not find that in The Summer Book. This novel is philosophical in a very understated way, and re-reading it will bring new insights each time.

Though my introduction to Tove Jansson was though her utterly captivating Moomin world, I have firmly joined the ranks of her adult reader base. I look forward to reading more of her books, but sense I will return again and again to this tale of summer.

*A special Thank You to the two wonderful book bloggers who organised NYRB Reading Week. I hope it becomes a regular event held worldwide more than once a year.