2022 Honourable Mentions: Five Superb Short Story Collections

Last week, I released a post on My Best Books of 2022; books that gave me much joy this year and would heartily recommend. As I reflected on my reading, I noticed that I had read quite a few short story collections in 2022, certainly more than in previous years. Two of them – Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Trouble with Happiness – made it to my year end list. But there were five collections that despite not making the cut were still great.

This post is to highlight those five short story collections, sort of my ‘honourable mentions’ if you will (You can click on the links for detailed reviews)…

WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.

A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (tr. from Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

ART IN NATURE by Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. from Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Scandinavia & The Baltics

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, and last week I wrote a post on some of my favourite reads from Japan, Korea & China. In today’s piece, I will focus on Scandinavia and The Baltics.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 

THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss. The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.

Thus, the narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

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. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

LOVE by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

The first in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series, Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Despite her mother’s moods and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

SHADOWS ON THE TUNDRA by Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

The Antarctica of Love – Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss.

The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered.

The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.

It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.

Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.

The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.

Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.

In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. The narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.

Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.

Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.

Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.

The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).

What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”

One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.

It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.

The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.

Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.

Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.

At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.

The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.

It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.

As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.

A Month of Reading – January 2021

Here’s what I read in January – a mix of translated literature, early 20th century lit and a fascinating memoir. It was a superb reading month, and I thought all the books were terrific. Indeed, a great start to 2021. It was also one of those rare months where I wrote reviews on every book I read.

So, without much ado, here are the books. For the detailed reviews, you can click on the links.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

This is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. This is an important book that needs to be read despite the brutal subject matter.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek.

All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

A poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a deeply moving novel that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

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. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. I loved this one.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

That’s it for January.  I have started this month with L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Plus, February is dedicated to #ReadIndies hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I have some books I plan to read published by indies such as Archipelago Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Charco Press to name a few.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

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.