The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

the summer book
Sort Of Books, 172pp. First published in 1972. Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

I knew about Tove Jansson only in the recent years, after I moved to Europe, from her beloved series Moomin. I didn’t grow up with Moomin, but fell in love immediately with the white hippo looking characters. Today I have a Moomin soft toy, Moomin shirt, and Moomin postcards stuck on my bookshelf :) – all without having read or watched the series.

The Summer Book is a standalone non-Moomin grownup book, and it seems very critically acclaimed and loved everywhere, appearing in many book lists. I didn’t know what to expect, but like with Moomin, I fell in love with it almost immediately.

The book tells the story of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother, spending summer on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Sophia’s mother recently passed away, and her father is busy working a lot of the time (though he’s nearby in the same island), so Sophia and Grandmother spend most of their time together.

Perhaps there are other books that have explored the grandparent-grandchild special bond, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across that of the a grandmother and a granddaughter. What I love the most is Grandma is not your average knitting, cooking grandmother. She is a wood-carving, smoking, feisty grandmother. And Sophia is no princess. She is adventurous, curious girl-scout type of girl.

The book consists of 22 short stories or chapters, and it starts slow, laying out the setting of the island. The chapters can be considered vignette, but they’re not as short as The House on Mango Street, and therefore more satisfying for me. Gradually, the pair’s bantering and conversations reveal to the readers and to each other their fear, whims, and yearning for independence. The island plays a major part. I’m not usually a big fan of setting description, but here I found it soothing, giving me space to breathe, to reflect, and for my imagination to fly around the island. In a way it reminded me of another recently read book set in islands: The Ten Thousand Things.

It’s hard to put into words how much I love Sophia and her grandmother. I love how they spend time together, but also apart. Like in the chapter The Tent when Sophia wants to try to sleep in a tent outside by herself. She learns how to be alone, and very aware of her surroundings, listening to the sound of the island all night. Grandmother always gives Sophia space –  her love is not the strangling type. Sophia has to learn this herself in the chapter The Cat, in which she meets a cat who refuses to be affectionate. Sophia realises that the more she wants to love the cat, the more he wants to get away.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

My most favourite part is probably one where Sophia decides to write a book about angleworm in the chapter Of Angleworms and Others. She finds that it’s too slow to write herself – as she has to stop to ask for the correct spellings, so she asks Grandmother to write for her while she dictates. It’s hilarious, while conveying universal truth at the same time. In a way Sophia and her grandmother reminded me of Pooh and Christopher Robin (which I absolutely love as well).

But most of all, I guess Sophia reminded me of me. I grew up in a stiffling big city, but I always yearned for nature and independence. I even have cat now who sometimes does refuse to be affectionate. The more I squeeze her the more she wants to get away. Sophia and I discovered that there’s a fine balance between loving too much and letting one to follow its nature. And the tent! I think staying in a tent by yourself is one thing everybody needs to experience at least once in their life.

The copy that I read published by Sort Of Books has a beautiful introduction by Esther Freud – which I’d recommend to read at the end (not at the beginning). She went to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece and was the inspiration of The Summer Book. She even went to visit the island that inspired the stories too, where Sophia lived in, and another island not far away where Tove Jansson lived in for a period of time (her house is now a kind of museum). Real life Sophia had to explain to occasional Japanese tourists that ask her to sign pebbles, that she’s not Tove Jansson, isn’t really even Sophia. (Sounds like an echo of the real life Christopher Robin too.) The island was way smaller than what Esther had imagined, which she could cover by foot in minutes. But at the end of her few days stay, her focus changed. The island was no longer as small, and she realised it would take a whole summer to discover everything there is to do.

I can go on, but hope you will discover Sophia, her grandmother, and their tiny island in Finland by yourself. I can imagine revisiting this book again and again in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5 – Not a perfect book, but I loved it for its rare portrayal of a unique girl and her unique grandmother.

Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Tove Jansson herself sounds like a very interesting figure to me. She was both a writer and an illustrator. Was briefly engaged to a man before meeting her life-long partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The two women collaborated on many works and projects, and they spent many summers together in the small island mentioned in The Summer Book introduction. Based on this book I will read more of her works – grownup or children’s literature. I’m interested to even read her biography when I get a chance.

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