Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Another beautiful translation of a Tove Jansson work for adults, this was a lucky Oxfam Bookshop find.  In Jansson's usual cool and lucid prose, we read about Katri and her slightly simple brother Mats, who live in a small coastal village; Mats works, informally, at the local boatbuilders, and Katri worries over how to establish a secure life for them.  The answer seems to come through a local artist.  Elderly Anna Aemelin lives alone in her family's house on the edge of the village; she is wealthy, drawing pictures of the ground in the woods near her house; with the addition of flowery rabbits, these drawings form the basis for bestselling children's books and all the marketing paraphernalia that goes with this.  Anna seems naive and unworldly; Katri takes advantage of this to establish herself as a prop and support for Anna, and before long Katri, her large dog, and Mats are all established in Anna's house.  Jansson explores the peculiar ambiguities of this situation.  Who is relying on whom?  Who is being exploited, and how?  Can good things arise from bad intentions?

The timing of the novel moves from the frozen certainties of deep winter to the fluid possiblities of spring.  Katri, blessed with an analytical and mathematical mind, is forced to consider irrationalities such as love and conscience; the innocent Anna discovers new reserves of guile.  The genuine affection that both women have for Mats - and that he has for them - controls their subdued power play and pushes them on towards resolution.  Around the three protagonists, the villagers watch and comment on events at Anna's house and in the boatyard.  And throughout the story Anna's relationship with her art is shifting and changing, leading to exciting and novel possiblities.

Anna's work as an artist echoes some of the themes of Fair Play, but this book considers different themes, of negotiating, comprehending and telling the truth.  It is written in a blunt, exposed style that contrasts with the ambiguities of the story, almost to the point of disingenuousness.   The snowy landscape and Jansson's prose are both pure and cool, but conceal as much as they reveal.  This gives the novel a compelling quality; you are constantly drawn on by the need to comprehend, to see what is underneath the frost.

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