Posted by: biblioglobal | August 12, 2014

Finland: The Summer Book (Book-from-every-country #58)

I'm probably being way too nit-picky, but the island in this picture has too many trees and not enough moss.

I’m probably being way too nit-picky, but I think the island in this picture has too many trees and not enough moss.

It took me some time to settle into The Summer Book and accept that it isn’t a children’s book. At first I thought that was just because I knew that the author, Tove Jansson, was also the author of the famous Moomins children’s series. But as I read, I realized that I was also reacting to the way the book was written. The writing uses simple words and sentence structures and the whole book is very episodic, with each chapter being its own story and not much of an over-arching plot, both of which are features consistent with children’s books. Furthermore, it is a story about a child and her grandmother and other than possibly a few swear words, there’s nothing in the content that wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone. But it isn’t a children’s book. Or maybe it is a children’s book written for adults.

I think that ought to be a genre.

Once I got used to the style, I very much enjoyed the book. Sophia and Grandmother (whose own name is never mentioned) spend summers on a remote island off the coast of Finland. Other than the occasional visitor and Sophia’s father (who always remains in the background), they have the island to themselves. They explore, always taking care not to destroy the moss by stepping on it, and visit nearby islands. The Summer Book could easily have been simply cozy nostalgia for childhood summers and I probably would have still very much enjoyed it if it had been. Instead it has much more bite to it, which is what unsettled me at first, but probably ultimately makes it a better book.

Sophia was a bit annoying sometimes, but Grandmother definitely goes on my  list of favorite characters (not that I have an actual list). I love the fact that she knows how to play. She doesn’t just play along to entertain Sophia, she plays for herself too. And she’s just just a wonderful mix of stubborn and loving, full of both wisdom and inconsistency. In one chapter she may be staying up all night to remake a piece of the miniature version of Venice they built, so that Sophia won’t be saddened by realizing that the original was swept away in a storm, but in the previous chapter she was arguing fervently with Sophia that there is no such thing as hell or the devil, refusing to cede her point no matter how much it upsets Sophia:

“[God] would never do anything so dumb as make a Hell”

Of course He did!”

“No He didn’t!”

“Yes He did! A big enormous Hell!” …Sophia shouted. “And what are you going to do about the Devil, then? He lives in Hell!”

For a moment Grandmother considered saying that there was no Devil either, but she didn’t want to be mean.

Unsurprisingly, the natural world forms an important  part of The Summer Book and is probably the aspect which is most distinctively Finnish. One chapter is essentially a painfully well-done description of why it’s better to plant native plants. Then there’s the moss everywhere and sedges and bogs and migrating birds.  And the beautiful but treacherous ocean. Being Finland, it is sleeting in May when they arrive at the island. When the summer is coming to an end, it’s not so much that the nights are getting longer, but that they are getting darker. You can see the stars again and if you get up in the middle of the night you’ll need a flashlight.

Another theme in The Summer Book was the importance of not over-protecting children and letting them go have adventures even if there is some risk involved. That was definitely my own parents’ philosophy and one that I endorse, at least in theory. In practice as a grown-up now, I find that it’s hard and scary to do that. (Particularly perhaps since they aren’t my kids.) I’ve come to appreciate and be impressed by how my parents are able to do it. So I found I really related to a scene where Grandmother was terrified by something that Sophia was climbing. But she knew that she had to trust Sophia to be able to get herself down.

I read The Summer Book as part of Women in Translation month . It was translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal. Although Jansson was Finnish, her mother tongue was Swedish and that was the language she wrote in. In addition, this year also happens to be the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson’s birth (in fact the actual anniversary was last weekend) and I’ve been reading reviews of The Summer Book all summer. I think the first review I read, and the one that inspired me to read it was by Claire at Word by Word. Thanks Claire!

I’ve just discovered that Jansson drew illustrations for The Summer Book, but for some reason the edition I read (Random House, 1974) left out the illustrations! What a terrible decision on the part of the publisher! BiblioBoyfriend suggested that maybe they thought thought that having illustrations made the book seem too childish. I would say that if that is the case, they missed the point. I may have to track down another copy of the book, so that I can see the pictures. And maybe reread some of it at the same time.



  1. Isn’t this a wonderful book? I read a few years ago for a book group. I had the same trouble you did settling down into it, it felt very much like a children’s book but once I realized the simplicity was hiding deeper things then I started to really enjoy it. I love what you say about Grandmother and play!

    • Yes! I would have guessed that this would be one you would like, for the gardening chapter especially!

  2. I have a copy of this book, the NYRB Classics edition. I haven’t read it yet though but I’m itching to do so. I’ll take this review as I sign to bump it up my to-read-immediately list.

    • Hopefully the NYRB edition includes the illustrations!

      • I just pulled out my copy and yes, it does have the illustrations!

  3. I agree with you leaving the illustrations out sounds like a major error. Not sure about the moss vs. trees, but that blue is stunning and it would draw my attention to it in a bookstore.

    • Yeah, like i said, nitpicky! But I agree, the cover is beautiful. (In this case, it was not the cover of the edition I read. Mine came from the academic library, so it just had boring blank binding.)

  4. Your cover picture looks like the version printed by ‘Sort Of’ books, and if this is the case I recommend getting a copy: in my opinion it’s an object of beauty. Your take on the book for children vs adults is interesting (I appreciate that you have stated that you don’t see The Summer Book as for children): Jansson’s style is quite crisp and might well take some of us some time to get used to if we’re accustomed to more convoluted writing, say. I’ve not read any of Jansson’s Moomin tales, and I don’t think I want to: The Summer Book is good enough for me and may be tarnished by her earlier work. That said, I also recommend delving into Jansson’s other writings for adults to put The Summer Book in context. Your review shows how you’ve picked up on Jansson’s connection to the natural world, but she has other themes too that tend to run through lots of what she’s written, I think. You’ve set yourself quite a challenge with the reading of countries! I wish you well with that. 🙂

    • I read some of the Moomin books as a kid and would be quite happy to revisit them. I’ll probably read A Winter Book first though.

      You’re right that the crisp style of writing is part of what I had to get accustomed to. I often tend to read quite quickly, particularly if the writing structure is simple. There are some books where that trips me up for a while until I manage to recalibrate and I think this was one of them.

  5. Thank you for the mention, I’ve really enjoyed all the adult books Tove Jansson has written and admit to not yet having read any of her children’s books! It’s got to the point that I am now keen to read the biography by Boel Westin, I want to know more about her life, her art and writing. I loved watching the video on youtube of the actual house and island where she later moved to, when the original island became too crowded with family and visitors.

    I had no idea she illustrated the book, how disappointing they weren’t included!

    • Yes, I really enjoyed the video you linked to of the island. It gave me a better mental image of what the landscape of the book looked like. Amazing how small that house is!

      I think the biography would be very interesting. I’m curious how open she was about living with her partner. I’d also love to learn more about her mother, since Grandmother was based on her.

  6. Oh, I’m only seeing this post now! And I suddenly realize I didn’t have your previous post on the main list either! Gah, apologies! I keep missing posts, and that’s not good. I’ll add you in the final update, I’m so sorry for forgetting.

    But the book! “Children’s book for adults” indeed. I read this a few years ago and really enjoyed that combination of gentleness and bite. Honestly, I’m due for a reread – every new review I read just reminds me, but somehow it hasn’t happened yet…

    • No worries. I thought about poking you about it, but I figured that you were pretty busy with your impressive daily posting schedule for Women in Translation month!

      I’ve got one more book to review for WITmonth, but I haven’t managed to get even that one written! Hopefully I’ll get it done by the 31st.

  7. Ah, apologies for missing this from me, too! I don’t know how ever did I not see this one. I’ve never read Tove, I think this would be a good choice to start? Too bad I already have my Finnish book. 😦

    • If you’re looking for writing for adults this one would be good. Of course, there’s also her most famous books about the Moomins. Finland has lots of good books to read I think!

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