Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Summer Book is a wonderful discovery

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is a rare and beautiful study in character and emotion. There is no plot. No excess. Nothing larger than life. It is sleek and beautiful and well-crafted – the literary equivalent of Tapia Wirkkala glassware. No surprise: the Finnish love for design is evident throughout this novella.

At the beginning of the book, we learn that six-year-old Sophia has lost her mother. She spends her summers on a tiny island off the Finnish coast with her artistic grandmother and her very distant father – so distant, in fact, that he never actually speaks. It is the relationship between Sophie and her grandmother that is the central focus of The Summer Book. Each chapter offers a stark vignette that offers new information about Sophia’s relationship with her grandmother. There is no chronology, and the time span of the book is unclear.

The Summer Book is a meditation on both love and death, and yet only mentions them tangentially – in Sophia’s unrequited love for a prickly cat, or her grandmother’s musings on what might have been lost in a terrible storm. Anger and frustration, on the other hand, are mentioned often, and seem to mask one emotion that no one is able to express: grief.

This small book illuminates the possibilities for the profound that lie within the trivial. It is charming, and engrossing, and often very funny. Not a word is wasted, and yet nothing is lost. Every piece fits together perfectly, even if you can’t see what’s its function is – just like the strange items that spill out of a box from IKEA. If it were furniture, it would certainly be Scandinavian modern. Reading it will remind you that some books are works of art: this is one of them.

If this was the only book I discovered because of this summer’s reading challenges, then every other page would have been worth it. I have to thank Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for hosting the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, and Cynthia at the Seasonal Reading Challenge for the “book with a beach” task, since that happy confluence of events led me to choose The Summer Book. I will be buying a copy when I return this one to the library, because I’m sure I will want to read it again.

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