Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Summer Book

The Summer Book

Some places have a special quality, where time stands still and entire worlds are encapsulated in the smallest thing. My friend's block, a few fields tucked into the forest and looking out across a valley into trees, is one such place. An island in the Gulf of Finland is, perhaps, another.

I have just emerged from the most beautiful novel, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. It charts the relationship between Grandmother and her young granddaughter, Sophia, in the months they spend together every year on a small island in the aforementioned gulf. Nothing much happens – they catch fish, swim, nap, talk about death, tell stories, listen to the wind, and watch the boats go by – and yet in these little things we glimpse the universe.

Small details are beautifully observed: the sounds you can hear in a tent at night; the pounding of an old woman's heart after a walk; the way potatoes grow on a sea-wracked island; and Grandmother and Sophia are complex fully drawn characters.

The two are very similar. Both are strong, independent, wilful, abrupt; both are wise and loving, compassionate and kind. The author draws out the similarities and resonances between the very young and the very old: Grandmother is old enough to play and be childlike, even childish, at times: she can be petulant, disobedient and fickle; while Sophia is engaged in the very important work of growing up, facing her fears and powerful emotions with wisdom and maturity.

Sophia is that rare thing in fiction, the perfectly drawn child. While often delightful, she is a complete human being with the full complement of emotions, expressed with the rawness of the young. She swings from thoughtfulness to selfishness in an instant, and is often terribly rude. Jansson perfectly captures the vagaries and intensities of a child's moods, where anger, fear and hatred are powerful forces that threaten to overwhelm her at times; she has to use all her wisdom, and the cunning of her grandmother, to meet them head on. A while ago I wrote about a book about a real child, Dibs, and the way he used story to understand his fears and put them into place. In The Summer Book Sophia, too, uses story to grapple with her fears, and it is very moving.

Like Sophia, Grandmother can be thoughtless, even selfish, at times; but with the experience of age she can see what she is doing, pause, reflect, and – when she can be bothered, of course – find a way to heal the hurt. The relationship between Sophia and Grandmother is necessarily intense, even as they maintain their fierce independence and seek solitude on their little island.

The scarcity of novels which focus on the very young and the very old, let alone the female, would make The Summer Book precious in any event; but given how beautifully, how perfectly, and with what great good humour, it is done, this book is essential reading. Sophia and Grandmother are drawn with vim and vigour, wit and wisdom; the result is austere, gentle and wise, an entire world overflowing from a tiny island in the sea.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Boggart, and The Boggart and the Monster

The Boggart The Boggart and the Monster

Susan Cooper is perhaps best known for The Dark is Rising Sequence, a beautiful series of novels which draw heavily on Arthurian mythology and the Celtic landscape – and which are so terrifying that I was an older teenager before I was brave enough to read them all!

However, she has also written a number of terrific books for younger children, and it is to two of these that I turn now. In The Boggart, Cooper draws from the myth of the shape-shifting, mostly invisible, mischievous spirit that belongs to a house. Old Devon MacDevon dies, leaving his tumbledown Castle Keep – located on an island in a Scottish loch – inhabited only by the boggart. His Canadian relatives, the Volniks, inherit. They have full lives in Canada and cannot move to rural Scotland; instead they visit and arrange for the sale of the castle; when they leave, they inadvertently take the boggart with them.

The boggart is miserable in Canada. Unnoticed, lonely, and suffering terribly from culture shock, he does everything he can to get the family's attention: he smashes things; he eats all the ice cream; he wreaks havoc with traffic lights; he gets into the controls of the theatre where Mr Volnik works and produces the most magical theatre lighting ever seen. With the help of a Scottish friend, the Volnik children, Emily and Jessup, eventually work out what is going on and find a way to send the boggart home.

In the sequel, The Boggart and the Monster, Emily and Jessup return to holiday at Castle Keep with family friend and new owner, Mr Maconochie. While on a trip from Castle Keep to Loch Ness, to which the boggart has invited himself, they realise that the Loch Ness monster needs their help. A lazy boggart who has spent so long in one particular shape that she can't remember how to change, Nessie is about to be discovered by a scientific crew. With the assistance of Castle Keep's boggart and the children, however, she manages to shape-shift and find a safe new home.

The stories are charming. The boggart is a trickster, and the games he gets up to are highly amusing – especially as so few know of his existence. People are flummoxed when the cup they thought was half-full is suddenly empty; objects disappear; strange noises wake them in the night. He turns into a seal and taunts the seals of the loch; he turns into a gull and soars into the sky. The imagery of flying is particularly exhilarating.

However, the real gift lies in the sense of place and belonging that runs through the stories like a golden thread. Emily and Jessup are Canadian, of mixed ancestry; but they feel right at home in Scotland. At some level, they belong there, or at least big parts of them do. In one scene, a seal hauls itself up from the loch to gaze into Emily's eyes; and in that infinite moment there is deep communication and belonging.

Meanwhile the boggart is miserable in Canada, and his longing for home fills the air with an aching sadness that affects even those unaware of his presence.

On the boggart's return home (and we are moving across novels now), he has to grieve the loss of Devon MacDevon, his companion for many decades; and establish himself with a new owner who doesn't know of his existence. Cooper writes of the boggart's grieving beautifully. In one scene, in wordless sorrow, the boggart keens the funeral lament, and mimics the sounds of the funeral march with its rolling carts and tramping feet, that accompanied the death of an earlier MacDevon. As a creature of pure spirit and pure emotion, with very few words, at moments of high gratitude he may lay a small cool invisible hand on a human's cheek just for an instant.

Like a young child, the boggart slips between extremes of sorrow and joy; and so the text is, for the child reader, emotionally manageable. Cooper balances strong feelings with humour and playfulness, and the result is a brace of stories which are by turns sad, entrancing and hilarious.

Personally, I resonate with the theme of belonging to and longing for a landscape. I am a Cornishwoman whose people have lived in Australia for 160 years. I visited Cornwall for the first time last year, and felt a powerful resonance; I felt, for the first time in my life, deeply at home. The light, the landscape, the architecture, the way people chatted in the shops: I belonged in a deep and immediate way. And yet, like the Volniks, my home and my more recent family history is in another place that is also called home.

Now when my longing for Cornwall threatens to overwhelm me, like a child I go back to Cooper's books – The Dark is Rising Sequence, The Boggart books – and immerse myself in the Celtic landscape of grey stone buildings and dark waters and the ever-present calling of the gulls, and wonder about that distant place that is both stranger and friend, intimately familiar and deeply known, which landscape is knit into my bones.

(For an earlier post on the relationship between stories and my interior landscape, written before I visited Cornwall, click here.)