Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

The Summer Book is this month’s selection for discussion at (by?) The Slaves of Golconda. I had never heard of it–or of its author, who turns out to be best known for her children’s series, the Moomin stories–before its nomination, so I was refreshingly free of preconceptions when I started it. Yet, somehow, it still managed to surprise me! I guess the whole idea of a book about a little girl spending summers on an island with her grandmother raised subconscious expectations that it would be precious or sentimental, or (worse) both. It is neither. Instead, it is tart and precise, occasionally very funny, and at moments unexpectedly moving. When I finished it, I had the (perhaps uncharitable) thought that if an American novelist had written it, it would have insisted too hard on an uplifting story line: the grandmother’s illness (treated only elliptically here) would have been more conspicuous, the quarrel with Sophia would have been harsher and more destructive, and then the end would have been a reconciliation scene putting out flowery tendrils towards nostalgia and some kind of feel-good lesson. Also, it would not have had a chapter called “The Enormous Plastic Sausage.” But of course this is only speculation. Perhaps there is an American novelist who could be as ironically restrained as Jansson, even on a subject like summer.

I realized it wasn’t going to be a cloying sort of book right at the beginning:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

‘What are you doing?’ asked little Sophia.

‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’

Gotcha! All that wonderfully tactile description, and the delicate placing of the grandmother and little Sophia in amongst it, and then false teeth! And when they find them, she puts them right back in, “with a smacking noise. They went in very easily,” we’re told. “It had really hardly been worth mentioning.” But aren’t you glad it was mentioned?

That little opening sequence sets us up well for what follows, which is a series of episodic reminsicences, each focusing on a particular moment, or theme, or problem, and each revealing (almost accidentally, it sometimes seems) some facet of the relationship between Sophia and her grandmother and their island. It’s not a book that really lends itself to deep analysis or broad thematic generalizations. Instead, it’s a book to be savored for the moments it gives you. One of my favorite chapters was “Playing Venice,” which (as I understood it, at least) tells us indirectly where Sophia’s mother has disappeared to (she’s never in the book).* After Sophia receives a postcard from Venice (“Her whole name was on the address side, with ‘Miss’ in front, and on the shiny side was the prettiest picture anyone in the family had ever seen”), she and her grandmother build their own Venice in the marsh pond out of bits of stone and marble and sticks; Grandmother even makes “a Doge’s palace out of balsa wood … [and] painted it with watercolours and gold.” They imagine themselves as a family that lives in their new Venice, a father, mother, and daughter–but beneath the playful surface, something unhappy lurks:

‘Look, Mama,’ [Sophia] called. ‘I’ve found a new palace.’

‘But my dear child, I’m only “Mama” to your father,’ Grandmother said. She was concerned.

‘Is that so!’ Sophia shouted. ‘Why is he the only one who gets to say “Mama”?’

She threw the palace in the water and stalked away.

Grandmother makes “a hotel and a trattoria and a campanile with a little lion on top. . . . One day, there was a green salamander in the Grand Canal and traffic had to make a long detour.” But then it starts to rain.

She could see right away that the whole shoreline was flooded, and then she saw Sophia running towards her across the rock.

‘It’s sunk,’ Sophia screamed. ‘She’s gone!’

Grandmother sends Sophia back to bed, promising to save the palace. We know, though Jansson doesn’t belabor us about it, that it’s not bits of balsa wood she’s worried about salvaging.

So there are moments of intensity, and like the Venice episode, they arise out of the disproportionate feelings of childhood, the lack of perspective that sometimes actually clarifies, rather than distorts, reality. There’s drama–as in the chapter “Sophia’s Storm”:

Sophia climbed up into the tower. The tower room was very small and had four windows, one for each point of the compass. She saw that the island had shurnk and grown terribly small, nothing but an insignificant patch of rocks and colourless earth. But the sea was immense: what and yellow and grey and horizonless. There was only this one island, surrounded by water, threatened and shelted by the storm, forgotten by everyone but God, who granted prayers…

…including, so Sophia is convinced, her own, which was “Dear God, let something happen … I’m bored to death. Amen.” “All the boats will be wrecked,” reflects Grandmother, “thoughtlessly.” “Sophia stared at her and screamed, ‘How can you talk like that when you know it’s my fault? I prayed for a storm, and it came!'” There’s suspense, as in the chapter “The Robe,” in which Sophia’s father takes the boat out for supplies and is late coming back:

There was a southwest wind when he set out, and in a couple of hours it had risen so that the wives were riding right across the point. Grandmother tried to get the weather report on the radio, but she couldn’t find the right button. She couldn’t keep from going back to the north window every few minutes to look for him, and she didn’t understand a word she read.

Then there’s Berenice, “a fairly new friend, whose hair [Sophia]admired.” Not only does Berenice have trouble making herself at home on the island, but Sophia isn’t altogether happy having her there either, and one day she ends up in the water.

‘Did she really dive?’ Grandmother asked.

‘Yes, really. I gave her a shove and she dived.’

‘Oh,’ Grandmother said. ‘And then what?’

‘Her hair can’t take salt water,’ explained Sophia sadly. ‘It looks awful. And it was her hair I liked.’

That complacently mournful remark perfectly captures the innocent egotism of childhood, doesn’t it? But Sophia’s not awful; she’s just six. And Grandmother knows that raising her right doesn’t always mean raising the tone. One day after a deep discussion about God and the devil (“‘You can see for yourself that life is bad enough without being punished for it afterwards. We get comfort when we die, that’s the whole idea.” “It’s not hard at all!” Sophia shouted. “And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell'”), Grandmother restores harmony with a song that, joyfully, Sophia learns to sing “just as badly as her grandmother”:

Cowpats are free,


But don’t throw them at me.


For you too could get hit


With cow shit!

In spite of everything, and because of everything, and in the least saccharine way possible, it always turns out they’re a perfect pair.

Other reviews from this discussion:

Of Books and Bicycles
Tales from the Reading Room
So Many Books
Book Gazing
things mean a lot

*Update: DorothyW at Of and Bicycles caught a detail that I apparently missed, a passing reference to Sophia’s mother as dead. Given the somewhat elusive chronology of the book, I suppose it is possible that at some point she is just away, but I’m probably just fishing for excuses for my own slip!

(cross-posted here)