Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

A few months back, the lovely Helen of Gallimaufry sent me a copy of Tove Jansson’s The True Deciever. She suspected I would like it and was she ever right! Discovering Jansson’s fiction is one of the highlights of my reading year. I loved the book. Loved it.

The True Deceiver is strange and dark and interested in human nature and animal nature and how the two get confused with each other or confront each other. The book is about Katri and her brother Mats and their relationship with Anna Aemelin, a wealthy woman who lives alone in a big house at the edge of the forest.

When the novel opens, Katri and Mats, who have a ten-year age difference, are living above the local shop. Katri is definitely a guardian figure for her brother and both Katri and Mats are outsiders, although for very different reasons. Katri is feared by the villagers because she doesn’t want their friendship, because she trusts no one, because she wields an uncanny authority over a giant but nameless German Shepherd. She is also a math genius. Mats, on the other hand, is considered simple-minded. He loves reading adventure stories. He loves working on boats and members of a family of local boat builders give him odd jobs from time to time.

For her part, Anna is a strange character indeed. A famous children’s book illustrator, she lives alone in the big house her parents left her when they died. She draws eerily intricate paintings of the forest floor which are then superimposed with bizarre, almost cartoon rabbits. Anna lives very much outside the local community, and so in their shared outsider status it is quite fitting that Anna, Katri and Mats are finally connected.

That connection is engineered by Katri for purely financial means. She wants to find a way to give Mats something he desperately wants. It begins with Katri working as a kind of assistant to Anna, and following a break-in (faked by Katri) the two move into the big house. Katri approaches the relationship on purely economical terms – what can be gained? what must be given up? Despite her constant mental calculations, she can’t factor in the other person’s personality quirks. And Anna is unable to think in such mercenary terms. If Katri’s modus operandi is hostile honesty, than Anna’s is overly gracious pretence. The two are worthy opponents and their “battle” will work profound changes on each side.

Just as fascinating as this uncommon story is the way in which Jansson tells it. She wavers between the 3rd person and the 1st person, switching at will and using the 1st to give us snippets of Katri’s thoughts and less often, Anna’s. The 3rd person narrator has a “knowing” tone as well, further complicating the mix of voices and opinions.

The book is set in the deepest darkest winter, when the villagers practically tunnel through the streets to get around town. The weather continues to reflect certain of the book’s events, although this isn’t a heavy handed technique in any way. As the story ramps up and Anna and Katri discover previously unknown parts of their personalities, Jansson’s winter descriptions shift to mirror their inner and outer struggle. It’s wonderfully done.

The True Deceiver was my first experience with Tove Jansson’s fiction for adults, but it certainly won’t be my last. Let me just finish up here with a bit of the writing, taken from a sample in Katri’s 1st person voice:

Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in from the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village cold be covered and erased and finally be clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where he dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. You wait and hide like a tree.

6 Responses to “Tove Jansson – The True Deceiver”

  1. Helen

    Hello Michelle, sorry I haven’t been around much lately… I am SO glad you enjoyed the book. Jansson seems to have a wry sensibility I really like, she writes in an unsentimental but still affectionate way of her characters. And she can be very funny; I laughed a lot reading The Summer Book although it is also deeply sad.

  2. litlove

    I’ve been meaning to read this for ages…. Apologies too, Michelle, for being slow in replying to your email. I’ve been poorly and am just getting back on my feet again. Book in the post to you this week, for sure.

    • Michelle

      Oh, Litlove, I do hope you are feeling better soon! And do not rush to send me The Forrests – whenever you get a chance!

  3. MarinaSofia

    Michelle, how is the writing going? Glad you enjoyed Tove Jansson. We are big fans in this house, from the Moomins to the grown-up things. My favourite is ‘The Summer Book’, but sadly she has not been much translated into English. Would love to read more of her short stories – if you hear of any forthcoming translations, let me know.

  4. Herman Lebed

    Michelle, you may like Gudberger Berggsons “The Swan”—how he writes from a childs perspective is eerie; I just began “The Summer Book” and have noticed similarities between the two novels.

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