It was good to read a Tove Jansson novel after a long time. The first book of hers I read – The True Deceiver – was dark and brilliant and it had found a place on my Best Books of 2011 list. It had also won the Best Translated Book Award that year. Having seen a lot of love for The Summer Book, it seemed like the obvious next choice, and I can now say that I join the chorus of praise for this novel.
The Summer Book is a lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters.
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 colors everywhere had deepened.
Sophia, her father and her grandmother spend the summer on an unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia is young with her whole life spread before her, a life that teems with infinite possibilities. The grandmother is in her twilight years with decades of experience under her belt but now weighed down by physical impediments. Sophia is wild, impetuous and prone to bouts of anger, while the grandmother is wise, unsentimental and sometimes cranky.
But the two learn to co-exist and navigate each other’s temperaments and fears. As far as books go, they are unconventional individuals simply because both are not in the prime of life and yet there is something about the relationship between the two that makes The Summer Book such an engrossing read.
It’s a book where nothing much happens and yet the small moments build up to paint an enchanting picture of family life during a Nordic summer.
Together, Sophia and her grandmother go for strolls along the coastline, they build a miniature Venice from wood, keep a cat, and build boats out of bark. Despite the huge age gap between the two and stark, contrasting personalities, the pair gels quite well and also embark on various adventures together. In keeping with the setting, each of the vignettes is like a self-contained island and depicts an idea around an event. For instance, a child called Berenice comes to stay on the island with them and is fearful of everything, an unknown visitor builds an ugly house on an adjacent island, a raging storm swirls around the island wreaking havoc, a midsummer evening is spent enjoying fireworks, and Sophia even sleeps in a tent alone.
They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.
But more often than not, Sophia and her grandmother have illuminating conversations – sometimes solemn, sometimes laced with humour. They discuss God, nasty relatives, fear, love and even death.
In a chapter called “The Visitor”, the grandmother laments,
Nasty relatives. They tell him (her friend Verner) what to do without asking him what he wants, and so there’s nothing at all he really does want.
There is another beautiful piece called “Of Angleworms and Others” where Sophia is voicing aloud her thoughts on these creatures, and the grandmother is scribbling them down. When angleworms are split in two, the two parts become individual selves and grow. But do they experience pain? Sophia quips,
Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.
And she makes a profound observation…
They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.
This particular observation hints at an element of darkness in the novel, an occurrence only mentioned once, but which hangs like a Damocles sword over the family – the death of Sophia’s mother. This is conveyed to the reader in only a couple of lines, but its spectre cannot be entirely forgotten.
Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.
Meanwhile, Sophia’s father is both an absence and a presence – he is not the central character but remains a figure in the background going about his work, while the centrestage belongs to his mother and daughter.
The idyllic Scandinavian summer is beautifully evoked – luscious landscapes, the blossoming of flowers, sounds and smells of waves, the immenseness of the sea, the serene, calm weather alternating with the rage and fury of storms.
I loved the tenderness shown by the grandmother towards Sophia as she assuages her fears and patiently bears out her outbursts. What’s remarkable about the novel is the portrayal of two perspectives together – the characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of life – the young Sophia who is curious, inquisitive with burning questions about the world, and the old grandmother who is mature but is beset by her own fears, always knowing that she is veering towards the end of her existence and hating the discomfort and dependence this entails.
And yet, for all her inexperience, there are moments when Sophia seems wise beyond her years, specifically when they talk about death. And the grandmother, for all her maturity, displays the inner child within her as she and Sophia engage in various activities on the island.
Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. The unchanging facet of island life is like a rock, an anchor against the turmoil and tempestuous moods of the sea and everything around it. It’s a testament to the fact that while life is unpredictable and has an uncanny ability to throw up challenges, there is comfort and solace to be found in the solidity of family rituals and relationships.