The Pequod Review:
Tove Jansson is most famous for her Moomin books, a fairy tale series for children, but later in life she wrote several exceptional novels for adults. The Summer Book is her best, a short and meditative story that brings together two generations (a rebellious 85-year-old woman and her six-year old granddaughter) on a small island in the Gulf of Finland.
The book is comprised of 22 episodic chapters that center on the interactions between grandmother and granddaughter over several summers. They wander around the island, build wooden boats, study insects, and have conversations about sorrow, death, friendship, and the joy of living. Jansson’s narrative has moments of simple beauty and childlike wonder that are rarely sentimental or trite:
When the south-west wind was blowing, the days seemed to follow one another without any kind of change or occurrence; day and night, there was the same even, peaceful rush of wind. Papa worked at his desk. The nets were set out and taken in. They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise or sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.
Sophia carried her bedclothes to the tent. She closed the door to her little cottage and said goodbye as the sun went down. All by herself, she walked out to the ravine, which this evening had become an infinitely distant place, forsaken by God and man and Scout — a wilderness with an entire night ahead. She zipped shut the door of the tent and stretched out with the quilt up to her chin. The yellow tent glowed in the sunset, and suddenly it seemed very small and friendly. No one could look in and no one could look out; she was wrapped in a cocoon of light and silence. Just as the sun disappeared, the tent turned red and she fell asleep.
The book also has beautiful descriptions of the natural world, written in calm and leisurely prose that matches the pace of the long Finnish summer days:
Very carefully I walk to the tip of the island. There are flecks of silver, seams of color welding the rocks together, with small landscapes of mustard yellow lichen clinging to the top. On the far side is a glade of sunken flowers, the seaweed, like soft curls of confetti, washing back and forth. There is a swing hanging from a branch and innumerable camps and dens set out by children.
I stand on a wide stepping stone and wonder if it would be possible to swim right the way round. My focus has changed now. The island is no longer quite so small. The rocks have become cliffs, the creek a ravine. But Sophia is calling me, it’s time to go, and I realize it would need a whole summer to discover everything there is to do.
A novel like this appears simple and effortless, but what Jansson has done is exceedingly difficult. She is in such command of her material and storytelling that she seems to slow down time; it’s as though the pressures of the modern world have been released and we’re reminded to just observe and appreciate. And equally impressively, she has written a book that assembles a discrete series of individual scenes into a rich and moving novel that is more than the sum of its parts. What a beautiful and timeless book.