Review: The Summer Book

There’s nothing like a cold snap to make you yearn for summer, crank up the Beach Boys and imagine the orange warmth of the sun kissing your eyelids. 

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Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is just the remedy. Indeed, the popularity of the book in Scandinavia, says Esther Freud in her foreword, owes much to ‘the allure of summer itself for those people who spend so much of the year in the dark’.

Jansson, best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, wrote the book in 1972, the year after her own mother died, and the book borrows characters and memories from the author’s life.

A touching yet understated novella, it shrugs off delineations of genre (combining adventure, humour, biography and philosophy) and just keeps you coming back for more.

Sophia spends her summers with her father and grandmother on a tiny, remote island in the Gulf of Finland. She has just lost her mother and – although the story is positive and life-affirming – loss is ubiquitous. Whilst Grandmother has no objection to her swearing, she won’t allow the child to call her ‘Mama’.

There is no plot, in the traditional sense. Time is elastic, but nevertheless linear. Presented as one summer, the chapters stretch into many, with friends and others drawing into focus and then disappearing into the shadows without explanation.

In the absence of traditional plot points, the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is the narrative’s primary driving-force. Grandmother is terse, yet fiercely kind and protective. Determined to foster Sophia’s independence without crushing her spirit or cutting short her childhood, she is equal parts delight and frustration at the absolutes which govern the young girl’s thinking. Sophia, too, insists upon pulling ties that bind them, then returning for comfort when bowled over by adult emotions.

Like the push and pull of its characters, the prose vacillates too – by turns, sparse and crisp, then gentle and meandering. One of the delights of the book is that conversations between the two are as likely to end abruptly in childish frustration as they are to unfold into profound philosophical discussions.

We are different creatures in the summer, Jansson reminds us. We stretch our minds and bodies towards nature. And while Sophia grows and explores, Grandmother’s physical decline is becoming ever more apparent.

The island – a character in its own right in this work – is developing too. We are reminded that a space that feels small to the point of claustrophobia for adults, is perfect for an exploring child, whose imagination and adventures expand it.

The island is ravaged by storms which blow over by dawn, like the characters’ arguments. Moss, trampled by summer guests, never comes back. New neighbours bring new customs and erode the old ways of life. Each change threatens to upset the delicate balance and uproot Grandmother. It is Sophia, with her youthful openness to possibility, who is able to usher in an acceptance of new ways of living on the island.

Humorous, wise and thoughtful, The Summer Book is a breath of fresh air in the truest sense, and a little taste of the trickling, pebble-strewn pleasures of summer in the midst of an unrelentingly cold winter.

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