Monday, January 31, 2011

The Summer Book

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles.

I enjoyed Tove Jansson's novel The Summer Book very much and flipping it through it just now to prepare to write this post, I realized how much I would like to read it again. It's a book that works quietly, and I think it's easy to miss some of its effects on a first read. On a basic level the book is about a young girl Sophia and her grandmother, who live, along with Sophia's father, on an isolated island in Finland. The fact that I noticed but didn't ponder enough during the first reading is that Sophia's mother has recently died. This is obviously hugely important, but the book is so quiet about it:

One time in April there was a full moon, and the sea was covered with ice. Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead. The fire was still burning in the stove, and the flames flickered on the ceiling, where the boots were hung up to dry.

And that's about all the book has to say on the subject, at least directly. But the signs of the mother's death are everywhere. One of the first things Sophia says to her grandmother is "When are you going to die?" The grandmother says, "Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours." Except that it is, because the grandmother is the most important figure in Sophia's life. Her father lives with them doing some kind of work -- the introduction to the book tells me it's sculpture although I didn't figure this out on my own -- but he's not much of a presence. A little later Sophia finds a skull, and she and her grandmother hang on to it until at the end of the day, they place it in the forest where the evening light catches it. Suddenly, Sophia starts screaming. There's no explanation about why she does this, but something about the skull must finally have spoken to her about death.

The whole book works in this understated way. There are beautiful descriptions of the island and the ocean, but we learn about the characters almost solely through their words and actions. Sophia and her grandmother spend much of their days playing, and they take this very seriously. With Sophia, this is what one would expect, but the grandmother is just as serious. In one chapter, the grandmother starts carving animals out of driftwood, and Sophia is curious:

"What is it you're doing?" Sophia asked.

"I'm playing," Grandmother said.

Sophia crawled into the magic forest and saw everything her grandmother had done.

"Is it an exhibit?" she asked.

But Grandmother said it had nothing to do with sculpture, sculpture was another thing completely. They started gather bones together along the shore.

Later in the book Sophia and her grandmother explore a nearby island where someone has built a new house and posted a "No Trespassing" sign, an act the grandmother believes is rude and ill-bred. So the two of them trespass and end up getting caught: they flee into the woods behind the house but the owner's dog finds them, and they are forced to show themselves. Fortunately for them, the owner never asks what they were doing there; instead they all behave as though nothing had happened.

It's an odd scene, but the whole book is like that: it's as though the family lives in another world entirely where things are slightly different than they are in this one. It's not a fantasy world, though. The grandmother is aging and has trouble moving about, Sophia is sometimes bored and lonely, occasionally flying into rages, and the father seems the loneliest and most isolated of them all. When other people enter their world, it rarely goes well. Sophia invites a friend, Berenice, to visit the island, but she hates it there, and nobody is sorry when she leaves.

Nature becomes a character in its own right; the descriptions of landscape and plant life are beautiful, but nature can be threatening as well as scenic. There are swarming insects, dangerous gullies, droughts, and storms. One of the most dramatic chapters tells of the family getting stuck away from home during one of the worst storms anyone can remember. Sophia learns about her place in the world: she had asked for a storm and was pleased to have gotten it, until she realizes that people might die. Her grandmother tells her it's not her fault, but she doesn't do it in a reassuring way:

"God and you," Grandmother repeated angrily. "Why should He listen to you, especially, when maybe ten other people prayed for nice weather? And they did, you can count on that."

"But I prayed first," Sophia said. "And you can see for yourself they didn't get nice weather!"

"God," Grandmother said. "God has so much to do, He doesn't have time to listen ..."

It's this relationship I loved best about the book: Sophia and her grandmother obviously love each other, but in a way that is honest, real, and sometimes difficult. The grandmother never talks down to or patronizes Sophia, and Sophia uses her relationship with her grandmother to try to understand what has happened to her and to figure out her place in the world. This relationship and the sharp, clear, direct style of Jansson's writing make the book memorable.


Rohan Maitzen said...

Her mother is dead! I can't believe I didn't register that remark--I noticed her absence but had other ideas about it. You're right that this explains some (many) of Sophia's anxieties and neuroses.

Dorothy W. said...

Oh, I feel better about not having thought about it much, then! The death is so easy to miss. That's why I'd like to read it again -- it could be a very different experience the second time through, reading with that in mind.

litlove said...

What a wonderful review! I must say I didn't think to talk much about the death of Sophia's mother in mine, but you are quite right that it doubtless informs much of her behaviour. But I love what you say about serious play - that's a perfect description of the narrative overall.

Dorothy W. said...

Thanks, Litlove! If I hadn't read the introduction to the NYRB edition, I wouldn't have focused on the mother's death as much as I did. Once I read it, though, it was hard to think of anything else.