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 Book, and 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 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.
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.