You don’t have to wait for the summer to enjoy The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. This brief novel follows the day-to-day activities of Sophia, a girl of six, and her grandmother, as they summer on a small island off the Gulf of Finland where the family has long had a modest cottage.
Sophia’s mother has recently died, but this is mentioned so quietly that it would be easy to miss. Her father is also with them on the island, but he speaks little (maybe not at all?) and is mostly occupied at his desk, or with carrying out household chores, or with attempting to landscape the challenging island terrain. What fills the pages are the activities and interactions of the mercurial Sophia and her forthright grandmother.
The book is constructed of twenty-two finely honed vignettes, beginning with “The Morning Swim,” in which Sophia expects her proposal to go swimming to meet with her grandmother’s opposition but she gets none; on her part, the grandmother discovers Sophia’s discomfort at venturing into the deeper water. This chapter sets the tone for what’s to come in terms of the jockeying of independence and cooperation between the two characters who are at the opposite edges of the typical lifespan. Their dialogue with each other is generally quite minimal, sometimes crisp and pointed, but full of resonance, laden with feeling. And their conversations don’t always go as they might wish (the turns of which can also surprise the reader), sometimes resulting in tensions that are gradually (or speedily) put to rest.
A few chapters bring them together to accomplish a common task, such as building a miniature Venice, or one where Sophia is shocked to see that she’s cut a worm in half while helping in the garden. After the garden incident, the grandmother tries to calm the girl and tells her how both broken ends will heal, and she coaxes Sophia to work through her feelings. Eventually Sophia, whose writing can’t keep pace with her thoughts, dictates to her a treatise which the girl calls A Study of Angleworms That Have Come Apart. This chapter is a beautiful example of the connection and individuality the characters possess as Jansson melds the shocked realization of the six-year-old with the worldly-wise experience of the grandmother, while silently appearing to acknowledge their surviving the death of Sophia’s mother.
Just as Jansson brings these two characters to life with just a few brushstrokes, she also excels at making the island come alive, with her attention to the topography, the seascape, storms, specific birds, and plants (her line drawings also add to the ambience).
Other chapters involve such things as Sophia’s first experience sleeping alone in a tent, the adoption of a cat, discussions of God and death. Their skerry also has visitors at times, and outings by boat are launched both for pleasure and to get supplies from the village.These chapters add dimension and appropriately fill out the summer season on the island.
Like Sophia, Jansson spent much of her life living in a small cabin on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. And she wrote The Summer Book in the year or two after her mother’s death. This might help explain why the scenes and sensibility in the book feel so authentic.
I am so grateful this book introduced me to the life and works of Tove Jansson who, in addition to writing thirteen books for adults, was also a painter, illustrator, and writer of the children’s Moomin books. The Summer Book is notable for its marvelous handling of character, setting, and what it means to be human, but also for its tone, concision, clarity, insights, and way of capturing mood shifts (you’ll find these traits also on display in her wonderful collection of selected stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories).
More about Tove Jansson, the island where she summered, and her artwork can be found here.