The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I promised myself to read this in summer, after a series of other seasonal reads like Susan Hill’s In the Springtime of the Year,  Tove Jansson’s A Winter Bookand Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I seem to have skipped autumn, so perhaps that will next, maybe Irene Nemirovsky’s Snow in Autumn or Albert Camus’ Fall.

The Summer BookThe Summer Book is a novel that reads more like non-fiction, an invocation of the spirit of its author Tove Jansson, who like the Grandmother and Sophia the grand-daughter in her book, spent all her summers on the small family island off the coast of Finland, doing just the kind of things young Sophia does and eventually feeling the constraints of the older woman, so that she herself comes of age (at 77) and no longer has the strength nor confidence to brace the unpredictable sea after a storm destroys their boat, she sensibly retires to the mainland for the rest of her days.

Esther Freud writes a captivating foreword, including sharing parts of her own visit to the island to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece. She visits both the island of Jansson’s childhood and Klovharun, a place of pilgrimage today (see the video below), the island she later moved to with her partner when their own island became too crowded with relatives and friends.  Freud ponders:

“What kind of person could live here? Someone so fuelled by their imagination, so stimulated by the sea, so richly creative that they could find solace and inspiration in what to others might seem a barren rock.”

This short video clip helps us imagine just what it might be like.  As for me, I could well imagine living like this for the summer.  And you?

In the book, we meet Sophia, who has prematurely lost her mother and so with her father will spend spring and summer on the island with her grandmother. While the father is present, whenever he is mentioned, even when in the same room, he is working or busy and so given background status, though in reality on such a small island, his existence would no doubt be more noticeable, however in the story he is a reassuring but not interfering presence, just like the island itself.

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove's mother) in 1968

Sophia on the island with her grandmother (Tove’s mother) in 1968

The pages turn like days of summer, governed by the moods of the elements, the creatures that inhabit its shores and the occasional visitor. Underneath or implicit within all that passes is the perplexity of death, that absence, prematurely confronted by a young girl and sensitively explained by her older companion. The chapter entitled Playing Venice is especially poignant, the loss of the hand-made palace necessitates Grandmother staying up all night to replace it, Sophia unable to cope with another loss of something so special and close to her heart, even if it is only a small sculpture.

In both the chapter Berenice, which is about Sophia’s friend who comes to stay for a while and The Cat, Sophia has to deal with the paradox of really wanting something, then discovers she no longer does and finally must learn to appreciate both her friend and the cat, just as they are.

“If only she were a little bigger, Grandmother thought. Preferably a good deal bigger, so I could tell her that I understand how awful it is. Here you come, head-long into a tight group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them more compact and self-assured.

An island can be dreadful for someone from the outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are hard as rock from repetition, and as the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.”

Like A Winter Book, this is not a volume to be rushed, it is best savoured and enjoyed slowly, it reminds us of the joy of simple things, that there is value even in those things that sometimes irritate us and above all that we ought to respect and pay attention to natures elements. This is one you’ll want to gift to another or even read again. A literary gem.

Further Reading:

A Biographical Essay on Tove Jansson

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27 thoughts on “The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Claire. The Summer Book is an exquisite read, full of light and life. I read it a couple of years ago at the edge of the Aegean, where the warm blue waters fell away beneath a clear and glittering sky and the pine trees released the scent of resin with the breeze. The mood of the book mingled with the day until neither could be cleanly separated from the other. The Summer Book became a book of summer.

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    • It is certainly a book that lends itself to be read in the outdoor environment or picked up when we wish to invoke that but can’t.

      And I am looking forward to reading your soon to be published book Julian, The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World, anyone who loves nature writing will be adding it to their reading list I am sure.

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  2. Beautiful review, Claire! I have only read a book from Tove Jansson’s ‘Moomin’ series. I haven’t read any of her prose works yet. I have had ‘The Summer Book’ for years but have been waiting for the right time to read it. I have read Esther Freud’s ‘Foreword’ though and it is really captivating as you have described. I liked very much that last passage you have quoted, on how everything is complete in an island, how everyone is obstinate, on how everything functions according to rituals. Thanks a lot for this beautiful review. It is definitely a book to be savoured. I want to read it soon.

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    • I am sure you will read it very soon Vishy, especially as I have discovered that there is a 100th anniversary for Tove Jansson to be celebrated in 2014, as she was born in 1914. I see earlier this year a memoir was republished from 1968, A Sculptor’s Daughter no doubt in preparation for the upcoming celebration.

      I am happy to hear of this event too as Art in Nature also sounds like an interesting collection, so I’m tagging that to read in 2014 to acknowledge the anniversary and her life. Her birthday was August 9, so that’s your new deadline in 2014 to dip your reading toe in the water 🙂

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      • Thanks for telling me about Tove Jansson’s 100th anniversary, Claire. It will be wonderful to get together some of her books and celebrate that day by reading them. I am thinking I will read ‘The Winter Book’ also. Maybe you can give me more recommendations 🙂

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      • Good idea Vishy. Those are the only two I have read, but on my last visit to London I came back with two more, which I am saving for an anniversary read. They are a collection of stories called Art in Nature written in 1978 but translated into English in 2012 and a delicious looking novel called The True Deceiver, looking at them now, I can’t wait to read them both. The novel has a wonderful introduction by Ali Smith that I have stopped myself finishing, because it is so enticing.

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      • Wonderful to know that, Claire. ‘Art in Nature’ is such a beautiful title. I think it totally encapsulates Tove Jansson’s thoughts. I would love to read that. It is also nice to know that Ali Smith has written the introduction to ‘The True Deceiver’. From your comment, it looks like this book is worth reading just for the introduction alone. I will add these two to my ‘TBR’ list. Thanks for telling me about them.

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  3. Now that summer is quickly turning to fall, I have a ‘virtual reading group’ that’s starting to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove. Would you be interested? We finished Vol. 1 in May. So now’s a good time to continue with the long novel and move onto Vol. II Here’s the invitation post. Hope you can join us. 😉

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  4. So good to see you have read it and I have enjoyed your review. It was just the right book for our special holiday in Samoa, taking a little each day. You were so thoughtful to send it for my birthday, Claire. Her writing really made me feel the atmosphere of island, especially in the stormy weather.

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  5. I love that phrase of yours — ”The pages turn like days of summer . . . ” The island setting has me captivated as well; I recently finished reading Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ and the narrator happens to live on a small island off of British Columbia. And I hope ‘Arti’ above sees this comment: Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ plays a profound, metaphoric role in Ozeki’s rich novel.

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    • I am sure I will read Ruth Ozeki’s book eventually, I remember reading her first novel, one of the first books I read with a book club. I hope you saw the images of the island, it looks wonderful, a moving image is so much more evocative and makes one want to be there and really imagine how it might be. It clearly inspired Tove Jansson, expect to hear more about her in 2014 with the anniversary celebrations. I’m already thinking about reading Art in Nature next.

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  9. Lovely review, Claire. As you say, one of the book’s strengths is how it reminds us of the value of little things in life. A few years ago, our book group read this one – it gave us much to discuss and reflect upon.

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  12. There is a wonderful gentleness about the book, that makes this feel like a joy to read, Sophia’s struggles with her new isolation was certainly a challenging aspect for me, its an interesting juxtaposition between the emotional challenges the Grandmother and Sophia have. I think I will have to contemplate this book further and reread it again one day.

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