Ken's Reviews > The Summer Book

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
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's review
Aug 16, 2008

really liked it
Read in November, 2008

You have to applaud simplicity in writing. It is the hardest thing for a writer to achieve. That sense of keeping the book ‘small’ for lack of a better term, honing the story down to the barest strokes on the canvas. I always thought Hemingway did it beautifully with The Old Man and the Sea. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is another great ‘small’ book that draws you in with its perfectly simple prose and contstruction.

In many ways, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is closer to the latter. It is a series of vignettes, rather than flowing narrative. It almost reads like a short story collection with all of the vignettes focusing on young Sophia and her grandmother, de facto stand-ins for the writer herself. At the time of writing, Jansson was a in her sixties, a grandmother, but also had recently lost her own mother (which happens to Sophia at the start of the book). It is this great understanding of both characters that allows her to imbue them with such life. Sophia is a precocious child, prone to fits and bouts of crying, and yet, can switch to being serene and adult. The Grandmother on the other hand is loving and accommodating, constantly nurturing Sophia in her adventures, but then swings into bouts of adolescent anger and bad behavior. The wonderful scene where she breaks into a neighbor’s house is a great example.

“In the middle of the gravel was a large sign with black letters that said PRIVATE PROPERTY—NO TRESPASSING.

‘We’ll go ashore,’ Grandmother said. She was very angry. Sophia looked frightened. ‘There’s a big difference,’ her grandmother explained. ‘No well-bred person goes ashore on someone else’s island when there’s no one home. But if they put up a sign, then you do it anyway, because it’s a slap in the face.’

‘Naturally,’ Sophia said, increasing her knowledge of life considerably.’

‘What we are now doing,’ Grandmother said, ‘is a demonstration. We are showing our disapproval. Do you understand?’

‘A demonstration,’ her grandchild repeated, adding, loyally, ‘This will never make a good harbor.’”

The interaction between the two is often hilarious and at other times really touching. They constantly swap roles, as in that scene from “The Neighbors,” where the grandmother can’t help but behave childishly while Sophia grows instantly into an adult. Writing from her advanced age, Jansson is able to look back at the two sides of herself and imbue a sort of rough love between them.

What truly grabs you about The Summer Book, strong characters aside, is its sense of place. It is a book of and about Scandinavian life on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago. In her introduction, Kathryn Davis describes the book’s “unusual point of view, which hovers above and around the island and seems not so much to move from grandmother to granddaughter as to share them.” It’s imbued with the air, soil, and water of the small archipelago island where the stories are set. It has that contemplation and patience that one finds in Swedes, Norwegians, and Fins. Jansson gives you that sense of awe when viewing the landscape. You can feel yourself amongst the marshes, bilberry bushes, Rosa Rugosa, polished stones on the beaches, wet grass, and dense forests. You can feel yourself floating around in the small boats and feel the wind and rain on your face. You can see the long slow sunsets that last until after 10 pm. In many ways, the characters are small compared to the natural surroundings they walk through. It is a very Scandinavian appreciation of nature and while reading it you get a sense of walking through one of Carl Larsson’s watercolors.

While not all of the vignettes in The Summer Book are solid, “Berenice” and “Dead Calm” fall a little flat, the rest more than make make up for the duds. Some are quite funny, such as “The Neighbor,” “Of Angelworms and Others,” and “The Cat.” Others have a wonderful sense of sadness such as “Midsummer” or the closing “August.”

“Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive.”

As you keep reading the vignettes in The Summer Book, you always feel yourself there, walking along with Sophia and her grandmother, or floating in the boat, soaking up the atmosphere of the tiny little island in the Finnish Archipelago. It has that same quality that all great paintings from Scandinavian painters have, whether it be Munch or Larsson or Zorn, to instantly give you a sense of that northern lit sky and the serenity of the landscape beneath it.
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09/05/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy I love this review. Completely agree with the Winnesburg, Ohio comparison, too! And Berenice is also my least favourite story.

message 2: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken Glad you enjoyed the review.

Looks like NYRB has another Tove Jansson book coming out in March which sounds really interesting.

Annelies I also read the book and I really like the way you have discriped it. The stories are so intense.

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