The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson’s name will be familiar to readers of children’s fiction. She created the Moomins in 1945. They appeared in books and cartoons and then newspapers, eventually in 12 countries. They were so successful that Walt Disney wanted to acquire them. He was turned down. Tove Jansson was much more than the creator of a hippo-like family for children. She was also  an artist and a writer of adult fiction, including The Summer Book.

80 TJ & moomin

The Summer Book has never been out of print since its publication in Swedish in 1972. It emerged as the most popular fiction title in ten years of sales at the London Review Bookshop in 2013. I came across it as a recommendation in a Mslexia diary and borrowed it from the library. I have since bought two copies: one for my mother and one to keep.

80 Summer Bk coverWhile The Summer Book is fiction, it is evident that Tove Jansson drew on her experiences of summer living on an island in the outer archipelago in the Gulf of Finland. There was an island, and a house and a little girl called Sophia (a niece not a grandchild) who has now grown up. Tove Jansson spent five months every summer with her ‘long-term companion’ Tuulikki Pietila on an even more remote island from 1964 until 1991.

How does The Summer Book fit with the series of older women in fiction? The main characters are a grandmother, who is a sculptor, and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia. Their shared summer life is revealed through a series of episodes. These illuminate a vivid relationship between different generations. The grandmother lives with a sharp awareness of nature: the sea, birds, the plants, the long summer days and the weather. And she encourages Sophia’s inclination to do the same.

Sophia and her grandmother, like any friends, dare each other to break the rules, argue and fall out, comfort, taunt and tease each other. And they turn to each other in time of need. Sophie’s mother has recently died. They have adventures, and exchange observations on the world. They discuss death, heaven and hell, why a scolder died, share a terrible song about a cow pat, build a miniature palace, dodge sex education, and sometimes avoid each other. Both have tantrums and sulks, and fears and regrets. They are respectful of each other too in a way that is rare between adults and children.

This is no sweet, passive grandmother but an older woman acutely aware of her surroundings and herself including her physicality. The book opens with a section called The Morning Swim:

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

“What are you doing?” asked little Sophia.

“Nothing,” her grandmother answered. “That is to say,” she added angrily, ”I’m looking for my false teeth.”

The child came down from the veranda. “Where did you lose them?” she asked.

“Here,” said her grandmother. “I was standing right there and they fell somewhere in the peonies.” They looked together.

“Let me,” Sophia said. “You can hardly walk. Move over.” (p21)

When they have retrieved the dentures the grandmother leads the way to a forbidden ravine. She tells Sophie what it feels like to dive.

“You let go of everything and get ready and just dive. You can feel the seaweed against your legs. It’s brown and the water’s clear, lighter towards the top, with lots of bubbles. And you glide. You hold your breath and glide and turn and come up, let yourself rise and breathe out. And then you float. Just float.” (p24)

This is a grandmother who takes children’s questions seriously, is herself fully alive, and not just shown as a person in relationship to others. She has weaknesses and sometimes a short temper. She is playful and mostly responsible. Both Grandmother and Sophia suffer from jealousy, temper and disappointment. And they are generous with each other, as the scene with the false teeth shows. In the most electrifying chapter in the book Sophia believes she conjures up a massive and frightening storm. She is distraught at what she has done and is only mollified when Grandmother claims responsibility.

This old woman lives on her own terms. She is straightforward about pain, nature, what other people do. She has a strong sense of herself and is offended when she is ignored. She is stoic about her infirmities, frequently taking herself off to sleep. She is practical, creative and bolshie. Of all the older women considered in the novels in this series (about older women) she is the one I most want to be like.

80 Finnish islandOne of the most poignant episodes relates to Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent. In the night she creeps back to her grandmother, and the two get talking about sleeping rough.

“All I said was that when you are as old as I am, there are lots of things you can’t do any more …”

“That’s not true! You do everything. You do the same things I do!”

“Wait a minute!” Grandmother said. She was very upset. “I’m not through. I know I do everything. I’ve been doing everything for an awfully long time, and I’ve seen and lived as hard as I could, and its been unbelievable, I tell you, unbelievable. But now I have the feeling that everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!”

Sophia helps her remember what it was like to sleep in the tent and this enables the child to return to the tent feeling safe. And the grandmother remembers better. They both fall asleep. (p93-4)

80 sm Fin islandThe episodes pull you along, related in a calm, even voice, a little at a distance from the two main characters, which has a hypnotic effect. This distance may be just the effects of the translation from Swedish. It made me want to visit Finland again.

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal.

Have you read this novel? Did you react as I have?


Older Women in Fiction: The next book to explore in the series will be Doris Lessing’s Love Again. This will be in April.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

9 Responses to The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

  1. Eileen

    Lovely – I must read it sometime. But my books are piling up so high. Thanks, Eileen.

    • Caroline

      I’m not sure the Moomintrolls will quite replace the charm of The Summer Book. You can let us kinow Norah. It’s a short book. Easy to read. And I recommend it to everyone.

  2. Thanks for this recommendation, Caroline. It sounds like a great read! Unfortunately for me it is not available as an audiobook so I have downloaded The Finn Family Moomintroll to give me a taste of her work.

  3. Anne

    I loved this book. I came to it through the Moomins who were my childhood favourites, as I recognised the author’s name. What I loved about the Moomintroll family persists here- loving, supportive but totally honest relationships. No-one pretends to be other than what they are. No-one dissembles or patronises. I bought this book and then gave it away to someone I was close to……I must buy it again.

    • Caroline

      All grandmothers should enjoy The Summer Book I think! And you have just caught why Tove Jansson is so appealing. Definitely buy yourself a copy Anne! Even if you give it away again.

  4. This is a wonderful book, I read both The Winter Book and The Summer Book last year and enjoyed them equally. I have two more on my shelf to read this year, a collections of short stories called Art in Nature and a novel True Deceiver which sounds compelling. 2014 is #TOVE100 the 100th anniversary of her birth, so there is also her autobiography out The Sculptor’s Daughter which sounds tempting.

    When I read The Summer Book, I came across a short video of the island where she spent time after the family island became too crowded, it was wonderful to see and imagine it and so sad recalling that last time when she knew she would never return. If you click on the link to my review you can see it, though perhaps you too found this when doing your review?

    • Caroline

      Thanks Claire. Others have suggested reading more by Tove Jansson, so she’ll be added to my very long list of books to be read.I look forward to the video about her island. I saw a very good tv programme about Tove Jansson a few month ago, which included a visit to the island, with the now grown up Sophia.


  5. I love everything by Tove Jansson, and The Summer Book in particular. What I love about her writing is how real and alive the characters are, most especially the female characters who are unapologetically themselves. She shows them in all their fullness of being, their short-temperedness, their foibles, their honesty and stupidity and kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness. She portrays women as they are, as I experience the women around me, not just as foils for the ‘more important’ male character to rescue or destroy. If you enjoyed The Summer Book, you will also enjoy Fair Play which follows a similar style of short vignettes, taking place between two older women; and The True Deceiver which is marvellous, dark and quirky and again utilises two very strong, very real and very flawed female characters.

    Fantastic review of a fantastic book, and a really fascinating website too.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for visiting and for your warm comments about the blog.
      It’s so good to meet fellow enthusiasts about Tove Jansson on-line. Thanks you for your recommendations. They both will be added to my tbr pile!
      I dont usually like anniversaries, but the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth has encouraged readers to be enthusiastic all over again about her work and to spread the word.
      Hope to read more comments from you here soon.


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