Monday, 28 December 2009

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

I've been meaning for a while to buy this book as a midwinter treat and read it by the fire, and having finally done so, I'm very glad I did. A Winter Book is a collection of Tove Jansson's stories and memoirs, telling of her early childhood with her artist parents, later life as a successful writer and as an old woman. Her childhood stories are luminous and bright, sometimes dealing with matters of great significance to the narrator, at other times quotidian in focus. This division is picked up again elsewhere in the collection: the story "Messages" comprises scraps of notes presumably addressed to the author, sometimes loving, sometimes ordinary, sometimes mad and threatening; the narrator of "Travelling Light" seeks adventure and escape but reaps only domestic confidences from a fellow traveller.

Jansson's adult and child narrators share the quality of clear-sightedness and are swift in their judgements, although even in the world of childhood ambiguity creeps in, as when attitudes to the sacred world of art are challenged in "The Spinster who had an Idea". The longest story here, and for me the most enjoyable, is "The Squirrel", in which an old woman is joined on her island home by a squirrel in November and finds that her visitor is occupying all her time and thoughts and knocking her off balance. This story is not only densely packed with ideas about solitude, the relationship between the wild and the domestic, and writing and art, but will also delight readers of Beatrix Potter by confirming that squirrels really do cross water on little rafts, unless Jansson could possibly be pulling our legs. The book is illustrated with photographs of Jansson, her family and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä; it is bound in the usual beautiful way by Sort Of Books, who have published another Jansson novel, The True Deceiver, which will probably be my next little treat to myself.

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