Philip Pullman called this book marvellous, beautiful, wise and added that it is also very funny. I think someone might have spiked Phil’s tea. Marvellous, wise and beautiful, yes, it is all three of those things on occasions. Very funny, though? Er. Maybe some people’s funny bones are hellishly tickled by airy Scandinavian short stories about nature and human existence, but I can’t say mine was.
Tove Jansson, it seems necessary to mention, was the Finnish author of the Moomin series of books. She was, then, primarily a writer for children. However, in the last few years her adult novels, of which The Summer Book is one, have gained greater attention and praise. I’ve always thought that the distinction between children’s fiction [not to mention young adult etc] and adult fiction an odd and irritating one. We seem obsessed with the idea that things ought to be directed or targeted, more so to sell those things than for any other reason. I mention this because there is nothing about The Summer Book, aside from the absence of white Hippo-like creatures, to mark it out from so-called kid-lit; and certainly there is nothing that makes it unsuitable for or unappreciable by children. In fact, while some adults might find it dull and uneventful, I’d wager that kids, who are way more open-minded than we are, would see something of their own experience of the world in it and dig it on that basis.
In keeping with the tone of the work, Jansson’s prose style is direct and simple. There really is nothing challenging about The Summer Book, and that could be construed as a criticism, but it is not intended as one. While I absolutely did not have the profound experience that some readers and critics would like to convince us the book is capable of providing, I did enjoy it very much. If you liked that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating around on the wind, if that scene made you gulp a little bit and squeeze your partner’s hand, then you’ll probably enjoy these stories too. I am keen to avoid hyperbole in this review, because I think that leads to disappointment; too many reviews of this book give the impression of it being something it isn’t. Take it on face value for what it is: nice. There ain’t nothing wrong with nice, yo.
I often alternate between the words book and novel in my reviews; they are, for the most part, interchangeable, of course. Not here though; The Summer Book is often called a novel, but it is no such thing. It is a series of connected short stories, featuring a child, Sophia, and her Grandmother. There is absolutely no more continuity beyond that [except the island where they live, and a father who is absent in all but name]. There is no narrative, no plot, and, actually, no character.
All of the stories, or episodes, are likeable and pleasant and worth reading, but one or two stood out for me. My favourite was The Cat, which involves Sophia adopting a moggy who will not return her affection.
“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Eventually she exchanges the cat for one who loves her back, who sleeps on her bed and purrs madly. Only Sophia eventually comes to realise that she can’t simply transfer her feelings from one animal to another and so wants to make the exchange again.
“It’ll be awful,” said Sophia gravely. “But it’s Moppy I love.”
The morals, the lessons learned are all very obvious and straightforward, but that is not to say that we can’t all do with being reminded of them once in a while.