Arts You Are What You Read Muse

You Are What You Read: The Summer Book

Hannah Jorgensen on why Jansson's novel resonates with her on a personal level.

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Image Credit: Hannah Jorgensen

There’s a tiny island off the Jutland Peninsula where white beach runs into knots of pine trees and fields of wildflowers. Locals sell their homegrown potatoes and carrots outside their cottages, and whitewashed churches jut out of the trees as they have  done for hundreds of years. It’s an island frozen in time, and it’s where I would be, given the chance. Instead, I’m reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book again, and projecting my memories of a Danish summer onto this gem of a story.

The Summer Book is the short, delicately-worded tale of six-year-old Sophia and her Grandmother, who spend their summer on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. It is directly based on Jansson’s own summers, on an island that she and her brother Lars discovered and built a house on. The novel tells of the simple companionship that Sophia and her Grandmother share, and the small adventures that they have together on an island they make into a contained world of their own. Though worlds apart in age and outlook, they are united in imagination; a postcard from Venice turns into the creation of a “sinking city” out of sand and moss.

Jansson’s novel opens with Grandmother searching for her false teeth among “a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers.” From the very opening sentences, we get a sense of the preciousness of the landscape and the beautiful mundanity of life and nature. Sophia offers to find Grandmother’s false teeth for her, and the conversation slips effortlessly from the everyday (“Are there ants in Heaven?” Sophia asked) to the deeply philosophical. The child asks, “When are you going to die?”, to which the Grandmother answers, “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

These first sentences, for me, capture the spirit of the novel. Jansson is reflective without being sentimental; funny, innocent and human. Hidden in the book like treasures are reflections on living. When Sophia discovers a wild cat called Moppy, who meets her affection with howling and running away, she tells Grandmother, “You go on loving. You love harder and harder.” On an island tossed by the elements, the strongest force of all is childlike love.

Ali Smith so wonderfully describes reading the novel as “like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth.” This startling clarity and exploration of depth is evident in the rich descriptions of nature.  “This forest...shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” At times, Jansson seems to be describing every cell of the landscape, leaving no stone unturned. What better way to see the natural world, in the context of a climate crisis? Jansson certainly doesn’t let us forget the value of the sea, the trees, and everything in between.

At many points, The Summer Book reads like a polemic against human interference with nature. When a bulldozer comes to the island to build a new road, Sophia looks on in horror at “an altered landscape - breathless, like the silence after an explosion or a scream.” The island is in itself a living, breathing organism, sometimes withholding its mysteries even from its inhabitants. When Sophia decides to camp outdoors, the ground beneath her feet becomes unfamiliar: “cold, grainy, terribly complicated ground that changed as she walked.” It is a reminder to Sophia that the world she inhabits is different from her - she cannot possess or control it, but she can only respect it. We are reminded that “every stem and stalk” is “infused with life”, and that natural  life is just as precious as our own.

As I read this wonderful book again, I feel the Sophia-like urge to examine everything around me: the flowers on the side of the road, and the particular shapes of the clouds gathering on the horizon. Tove Jansson has once again encouraged me to focus on small joys (a sentiment shared by her more famous creation, the Moomins), even when I can’t travel. The Summer Book is a superb meditation on living and nature, told with astonishing brevity. Hailed in Scandinavia as a modern classic, I would highly encourage you to discover this book for yourself.

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