Monday, July 25, 2022

Reading group: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

As I predicted, having Covid put me right off my stride with my new novel, and as a result I have since re-conceived the whole thing - for the better, I think! This has taken up much time and preoccupation (as conceiving a novel always does, I find - trying out different starting points, different voices, persons, tenses etc, and waiting for the direction of the whole thing, and the deeper meanings, to become clear to me before I can properly launch into it) and  I've also been very involved with family matters, while also reading reams for a literary prize, so my reports for the reading group have lapsed. This catch-up report and the next will be necessarily brief, partly as my memory of the discussions will inevitably be less detailed, but also because we didn't in fact find much to say about either book.

All of us present enjoyed reading Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. A short book, it's the semi-autobiographical portrayal of life for a young girl, Sophia (who in real life was Jansson's niece), and her grandmother (in reality Jansson's mother) on the tiny isolated Finnish island they occupy with Sophia's father during the summer. Ann, who had suggested the book, said that she was very engaged by the relationship - two rather crotchety yet utterly bonded characters delineated movingly yet without a hint of sentimentality, often with humour. Everyone strongly agreed. The book is episodic, with chapters devoted to isolated incidents - the grandmother losing her false teeth, the visit of one of Sophia's friends, a night that Sophia tries camping, a storm - but overall is the sense of summer swelling and then fading. Overall too, is the sense of death - Sophia's mother is dead, and there is much of the grandmother's failing physicality - but this runs alongside a sense of the richness of life and nature. The thing that impressed me - and Doug - most was the prose, which seems very simple but somehow manages to create a striking vividness and an evocative atmosphere, so that the island with its teeming life and seasonally changing nature lingers in the mind. We were never sure whether the book is meant to portray a single summer or several consecutive summers - Sophia appears to become older, more sophisticated in her speech, but then later to regress - but this didn't really seem to matter, as the whole thing has a dreamlike quality with the magical logic of dreams. 

Mark was perhaps the least enthusiastic, feeling that the episodic nature of the book hardly qualified it as a novel. The rest of us had no problem with this, and my feeling was that there was no need to label the book. Whatever it was, we enjoyed it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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