Thursday, February 03, 2011

'The Summer Book' - Tove Jansson

I am so late getting my thoughts on ‘The Summer Book’ up for The Slaves of Golconda readalong, because I’ve been having some external device + laptop issues in the last few days. Of course these wouldn’t have stopped me posting if I’d written this review right after I read the book at the begining of the month and pre-scheduled it, but I didn’t (no excuses I’ve been equal parts lazy and buried in other books). So instead of joining in with my own post I’ve been catching up on other people’s thoughts. Have I mentioned this is why I love small group readalongs so much? All these other thoughts appearing on a book you finished recently is kind of wonderful in its quiet bookishness. Now I’m putting my own thoughts out there, in the hope that the other members of the group (and you even if you didn’t readalong) will find something to enjoy here.

Tove Jansson’s
'The Summer Book’ is the story of of a young child called Sophia and her grandmother, who spend time together on an island in the Gulf of Finalnd, which Sophia’s grandmother has lived on for forty seven years. Esther Freud’s introduction to my edition explains that Sophia is based on Jansson’s niece and Sophia’s grandmother is based on Jansson’s mother (Freud's introduction is a short piece that combines facts, literary criticism and a personal story about her visit to the island that inspired the book, with Sophia Jansson).

The novella is made up of a series of chapters that are each a seperate, complete story. Maybe each one could be called a vignette chapter, as they’re quite short and capture specific moments of the characters life on the island. In any case, each chapter could be read independently, or out of sequence without any confusion. However, when read one after another in the order Tove Jansson has set them in, connections begin to form between the seperate stories.

As the novella progresses the pronounced seperateness of the individual story each chapter contains emphasises the gaps that surround these glimpses of life. Life outside of the island isn’t refferred to much, but the occassional detail is dropped in that suggests the characters have other complicated, full lives outside of immediate island life that the reader is not seeing. The contained way in which life is presented to the reader, as if little exists beyond the particular incident that they are reading about, encourages readers to feel that they are arriving in the middle of life, because they aren’t given any lead in, explanatory detail of what led to this moment. The third person narrator seems to presume readers are already familiar with the two characters lives, by declining to provide much detail from outside the immediate moments described. This lack of detail, not only intrigues the reader, making them hungry for every detail of the characters wider life, but also encourages the reader to care about the characters, because they are already being addressed with the casual lack of explanation that signals an intimate friendship. I always find this technique of telling the reader that they’re already involved and engaged with a story a powerful draw.

The vignette style also creates a sense of time passing, without often directly mentioning the time that has passed between each chapter. The absence of description of life outside the island, or life outside of the specific moments readers are allowed to see, as well as the way readers are dropped into situations with little introduction, suggests that other things have happened around the events that readers have been shown. At the same time Jansson creates small connections that remind you that while you haven’t been watching the characters their lives have been continuing, for example Sophia’s grandmother’s illness escalates during the novel and quick mentions of her condition inform readers she is getting worse, but the escalation seems to happen faster than it should from what the rest of the text describes. A simple couple of sentences suddenly makes it clear that she is actually ill, not just frail:

'They crawled on through the pines, and Grandmother threw up in the moss.

"It could happen to anyone," the child said. "Did you take your Lupatro?" '

but it seems as if she must have been deteriorating outside of what is described in the text for some time to have reached this severe stage. So I began to think that chunks of time must be passing outside of the text.

The contained nature of the individual stories in each chapter somehow emphasises the absence of writing around those moments. There are quiet hollowed out spaces you can almost feel the shape of, in between each story, even though they’re unwritten spaces. There’s a push, pull tension in this novel, where the completness of each story makes the reader more aware of these spaces of silence and the spaces accentuate the completness of what Jansson has written.

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