The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (Review)

Tove Jansson (creator of The Moomins) also wrote a number of novels. This is her modern classic, which has undeservedly been overlooked outside of Scandinavia.

Source: Purchased.
Publication Details: 1972, first published as ‘Sommerboken’.
Edition: Translated from Swedish. 2003. Sort Of Books: London. 160 pages.

Blurb: An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas.

Rating: 5/5

The Summer Book is not necessarily the kind of book I would normally read, but it became one of my favourite books after my first reading. I devoured this book feverishly. It is just wonderful. A friend recommended it, knowing full well about my love affair with Finland. She said that I would enjoy its depiction of the islands in the gulf of Finland during the glorious summer months; she wasn’t wrong. I’ve since passed this book on to a number of people, and I’ve found that you don’t have to be in love with, or even familiar with, Finland to find the book desperately charming.

As Esther Freud says in her foreword to the book, it is impossible to categorise The Summer Book; it is ‘a work of fiction, adventure, humour and philosophy’ that can resonate and connect with such a myriad of people.

On the one hand, very little happens in the book. It follows a young girl and her grandmother on a tiny Finnish island over the course of one summer. There is no big mystery to unpick. The book isn’t at all pretentious. It never tries to be anything more than a whimsical tale of simple summer living.

And yet, on the other hand, this simplicity veils the depth and complexity of the novel. Sophia (the six-year-old protagonist) has recently suffered the death of her mother, and this, combined with the obvious frailty of her Grandmother, leads to philosophical discussions about life and death, all of which are handled beautiful with Jansson’s characteristic Finnish dry humour and wit.

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.
And Grandmother answered, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

I was delighted to find out that Jansson based Sophia on her young niece (now responsible for the control of Jansson’s estate, since her death in 2001), and based Grandmother on her own mother, Signe Hammarsten, who passed away shortly before Jansson began to write the book. Knowing this, you can understand how the book was a form of therapy to help deal with the loss of her beloved mother. The musing on the difficulties of life and death makes a lot more sense when you consider the period of Jansson’s life in which the book was written.

Through the wildlife and natural world that surrounds them, Sophia and her Grandmother explore a variety of greater emotions than one might expect from a short summer read. A dead bird leads to a number of philosophical discussions between the two, each approached from the childish fascination of the young girl; something that makes the book all the more nostalgic and sweet. The child-like innocence, and yet unyielding curiosity, are so enjoyable, as is the ascorbic wit of the Grandmother.

Religion, the nature of life and death, mundane every day tasks and accompanying thoughts: it is all woven into this collection of vignettes documenting life on an isolated island during a typical Scandinavian summer.

What the books lack in plot, it makes up for in the feeling it gives you. You cannot read the sweet exchanges between the grandmother and granddaughter without feeling both moved and uplifted. The book can be read simply (two people on a small rock), or much more deeply, taking into account the philosophical strands found throughout.

It’s amazing how the whole cycle of life and human relationships can be explored through the adventures of two people on an island that takes less than five minutes to walk the entire circumference of. For people who only know Tove Jansson as the creator of the Moomin comics, this, her first and most loved novel for adults, will come as a welcome surprise.

If you’re looking for a relatively short book to get you in the mood for the approaching summer, the beautiful descriptions of the Finnish summer are ideal. If you’re looking for a book to make you want to curl up in your Grandmother’s favourite chair, and remember every detail of your childhood, this is, again, perfect. If you’re looking for a book to help you shut out the ugliness and horror of modern life for a few hours, this simplistic and pure novel is just the ticket.

The Summer Book has been described as a modern classic, and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1972. Despite this, it is largely unknown in many places. This really needs to change, for a book that has so much to offer despite its initial look of simplicity.

Have you read The Summer Book? What do you think of the book? Let me know!

-CK –

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