Tove Jansson, the world-renowned creator of the Moomintroll characters, succinctly harnesses the power and glory of a seaside summer season in the twenty-two elegant vignettes contained within The Summer Book. Here is a book in no need of magic or any other fantastical adornments as she reminds us that we can discover pure, beautiful magic in the natural world all around us if only we quiet our lives and open our eyes to it. Set upon a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland much like where Jansson’s own family spent their summers, Summer Book chronicles the interactions and adventures between a young girl, Sophia, and her grandmother as they embrace the world and all the facts of life that surround them. Tender and subtle, yet laced with poignant investigations of life, love and death, Jansson’s words caress the soul like a warm breeze carrying with it the effluvium of the sea and all its majesty.
The childhood vacation home of Tove Jansson
The Summer Book is a book where almost nothing happens, yet everything happens. It is a quiet little book that that only hints at the powerful undercurrents that charge the events that transpire. Each vignette details what initially appears to be seemingly inconspicuous moments in the lives of young Sophia and her grandmother, yet unveil guideposts leading to deeply penetrating insights into the human condition, much like the wooden animal figurines created by the grandmother.
She cut the them from branches and driftwood and gave them paws and faces, but she only hinted at what they looked like and never made them too distinct. They retained their wooden souls, and the curve of their backs and legs had the enigmatic shape of growth itself and remained a part of the decaying forest... Grandmother worked only in old wood that had already found its form. That is, she saw and selected those pieces of wood that expressed what she wanted them to say.Jansson doesn’t force meaning or preach morality, she simply selects sublime moments of human interaction and lets them point towards something far greater. In this manner, Jansson avoids the pitfalls of choking the reader in oversentimentality and soars to great heights of succinct poetic grace. Accompanying her awe-inspiring words are her gorgeous illustrations, which make a perfect match by being both simple, yet magnificent.
An island can be dreadful to someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure, and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, ad at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.Each vignette is as self-contained as an island, with one event gesturing towards one idea, and then never returned to again, much like children’s cartoons where each episode is irrelevant from the next, which only furthers the glorious childlike feelings thatemanate from each page. There is no need to establish a time-line—the months moving back and forth across the summer season may imply that it occurs over several different summers, yet there is no indication which summer it is or if Sophia has aged—or for events to be considered in light of later events. It is a blur of summer grandeur. Nothing really progresses, yet nothing really has to because The Summer Book is a vacation from the stresses and hustle of life. It moves to the gentle rhythm of a bobbing sea quietly breaking on shore as you read in the long grass beneath a sweltering sun.
There is only one major event that directs the course of the action: ‘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.’ This is the only mention of Sophia’s tragic loss, and while it sits hushed in the peripheries of the margins, it casts an omnipresent shadow that is always lurking in the back of the reader’s mind. Jansson wrote this book a year after loosing her own mother. After witnessing a worm cut in two and learning that both halves will continue on, Sophia dictates a study on worms to the grandmother in which she say ‘They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.’ Sophia must live her life without her ‘other half’, not knowing how it is affecting her, but only knowing that it is affecting her. Amidst the joyful effervescence of summer are the grim realities of mortal lives that must interact with one another. Jansson does not depict a world full of eternal sunshine and happiness, but one where the sky may break into a furious storm at any moment to rattle us like a house being tugged from its foundation in gale force winds. ‘’It’s funny about me,’ Sophia said. ‘I think nice weather gets to be boring.’’ Once again managing to avoid being overly sweet, Jansson creates a cast of flawed, yet very human, characters. Sophia often flies into an angry rage, often irritated that the world doesn’t fit her idea of how it should be, and has a fierce need to test boundaries and assert her independence and identity, whereas the grandmother is cantankerous and rather unsentimental. The two make a wonderfully comedic pair, bickering as equals and passing time together, being both too young and too old to partake in much of the activity around them—such as a booze-filled party on a boat the father leaves them for—and having to find ways to assert their existence in the world in spite of it all.Jansson illuminates a world that is indifferent and unsentimental, yet manages to create a passionate tenderness out of embracing reality as it is. We must make the best of the world we have and learn to love it if we are to find true happiness in our lives, and this book is a wonderful example of finding this love.
As the pair face the world, the readers are given small glimpses into their hearts and souls. Many of life’s big issues are addressed and handled with finesse, such as the way in which we love even what hurts us. Sophia is disgusted by her cat because it is a killer, always bringing dead mice to the door, and trades it for a different cat only to miss her original cat. ‘’It’ll be awful,’ said Sophia gravely. ‘But it’s Moppy I love.’’ A wide assortment of life’s toughest realities, all its joys and sorrows, are viewed through the innocence of a young girl finding her way in the wild, and the result is immensely moving. Nothing last forever, and our summer of childhood must come to an end. We must shoulder the cold of the world and move on into our seasons of adulthood, carrying with us the lessons we learned as wild-eyed children trying to decipher the mysterious signs of nature.
Each page of The Summer Book rolled across me in waves of nostalgia for idyllic childhood summers spent in a cabin rented by my parents on Sunset Lake in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. With each luminous description of the luscious landscapes I was transported back to the sights, sounds and smells of the waves, trees and summer air of my childhood and sat back in wonderment as I watched my memories play back images of my younger self encountering the mysteries of the world. This truly is a beautiful book that instilled an emotion in me so delicate and beautifully ineffable that I had to get sloppy drunk enough to have the audacity to tarnish it’s power by attempting to convey it through the dingy pipelines of my own words. This is a subtle little novel that immerses you into nature and reminds you that you are just a tiny dot in a vast universe. While nothing appears to be immediately meaningful, there is a vast depth to be uncovered if we just sit back, relax, and let ourselves be engulfed in Jansson’s prose. Which is much like the magic of the world around us. We miss so much if we rapidly hurtle through the world, trying to leave a mark upon it as we attempt to ensnare some sort of meaning that we can hold onto and bottle up in an airtight jar of our own identity. Instead, Jansson asks us to take the slow, scenic route, and transcend beyond our own identity, to become a small part of nature, a tiny part of something greater. There is where the true magic of existence is found, listening to the orchestra of nature all around us and seeing the power and beauty in the tiniest of interactions, in seeing each interaction with another consciousness as a gift in itself, and finding peace in our small corner of the world. Jansson expertly harnesses the aura of summer, and its nights that are, as Bruno Schulz once wrote, ‘as vast as the megalomanic aspirations of young lovers.’ This book is utterly cleansing to a weary heart, like a brilliant ray of sunshine through a dusty attic, and makes for a perfect summer get-away for readers of any age. This book makes me glad to be alive.
‘To the final landscape of our old age, as summer fades. This is a fine moment. Silences settles all around us, each of us wanders his own way, and we all meet by the sea in the peaceful sunset.’