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.

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