While on holiday two weeks ago, I read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. Not even the unruly multi-family party of Scandinavians sharing our hotel, who slammed doors, ran down hallways at 3am and yelled to each other from their balconies at midnight, could make me unlove this beautiful book (of Finland). I wrote immediately on Twitter how this book fits my idea of a “perfect” piece of writing—plotless but absolutely riveting, graceful and honest—and several weeks after finishing its pages, this still holds true.
The Summer Book is set on a small island in Finland, in a vacation home, and the book catalogues the interactions and adventures of an elderly grandmother and her young granddaughter Sophie. In quite short, disarmingly simple and themed chapters like “Playing Venice,” “The Cave” or “The Robe,” Jansson comments on a variety of powerful subjects. The book is, quite simply, about life and the many difficult questions of existence that humans ponder. And that pondering is presented honestly, through the unique ways that humans consider such things, and by that I mean: off-hand, in absurd conversations, in solitude, in our physical relationship to nature and in our love and hate for other human beings.
One of the things that Jansson does, and does incredibly well, is evoke how human beings find magic in the simplest things. Not real magic, she never goes quite so far, but she knows how to bring the reader (through her characters’ actions and thoughts) to that little feeling of awe that strikes at any given moment and for unexplainable reasons. Jansson really has her finger on this human impulse and this is what most of The Summer Book seems to be about. These moments of awe aren’t always joyful, of course, and both sorrowful awe or angry awe are strong currents in the book as well.
Something I found very curious about the book was the portrayal of the father character. I would have to double check, but I don’t think he ever speaks a line of dialogue, and mostly he is absent—either working or away in his boat. But he is this incredibly affecting presence throughout the book, yet without any real engagement with either the grandmother or Sophie. They talk about him, they disobey his stern rules, they watch him a lot. It’s a technique I haven’t come across before in other books, at least not often or that I can remember. I loved it. Also, the reader learns quite early that Sophie’s mother has died. Jansson gives us this piece of information quickly and without ceremony, and she never goes back to it. But this reality haunts the entire book, and these two people—one truly absent, the other perhaps absent out of grieving or loneliness—are powerful characters.
The Summer Book is a serious book, but it’s filled with some excellent humor. Sophie and her Grandmother are often in conversation about very difficult things, although they don’t often touch these subjects head on. Instead, they talk “around” things or they say silly things which are truly very serious. And they are often prickly with one another, but that prickliness reveals a deep mutual need and love. I do not think I have seen this kind of love expressed so well in many other books. Perhaps, however, this is especially striking because it’s accomplished through the non-traditional pairing of a grandmother and a little girl.
It’s a real pleasure to discover a novel and know immediately that I will reread it often. The Summer Book is the kind of book that doesn’t have to be picked up and gone through from start to finish (although I will do this and am looking forward to doing this again soon), but I could nearly choose a chapter at random and enjoy its atmosphere again whenever I feel like it. It is an example of one of those rare books that become life companions. I do not put many books in this category, and it’s a very special treat to be able to add another volume to this, my most precious of book lists.