#100WomenNovelists: Tove Jansson

Blog Post 22: The Summer Book (1972)

Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal


It was an early, very warm morning in july, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed. the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colours everywhere had deepened. Below the veranda, the vegetation in the morning shade was like a rainforest of lush, evil leaves and flowers, which she had to be careful not to break as she searched. She held one hand in front of her mouth and was constantly afraid of losing her balance.

‘What are you doing?’ asked little Sophia.

‘Nothing,’ her grandmother answered. ‘That is to say,’ she added angrily, ‘I’m looking for my false teeth.’

This novel is quite frankly a joy. Written by the creator of the Moomins, it is a classic in Scandinavia and far beyond, though I only read it for the first time about ten years ago. It is such a treat to revisit it.

The world loves the Moomins. In the words of Ali Smith from her review of ‘The Summer Book’ in the Guardian in 2003, ‘The Moomins are archetypes of tolerance and adaptability, creatures of curiosity and quiet philosophising who live in a Scandinavian setting of mountains, forests, seas and valleys. Joyful, melancholy and in the end uncategorisable, they survive terrible upheavals simply by their mild geniality. Their extended communal family is generous and inclusive, made up of outsiders from the calm to the anarchic.’

And the essence of the Moomins is captured in ‘The Summer Book’ which shows the complex and yet simple relationship between a grandmother and her young granddaughter. Tove Jansson lived her summers on such an island with her life-partner, Tuulikki Pietilä and this book is an homage to the islanders repetitive, rhythmic way of life and to the relationship between her own mother and niece, Sophia, on whom she bases the characters in this novel.

Grandmother, Sophia, and her parents spend their summers on a remote, tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. But this year is different. Sophie’s mother has died and so it is just the three of them. Her father is distant, either working at his desk, or out doing jobs, in his boat, in his own world of bereavement. There is only one mention of the mother’s death at the beginning but the knowledge of it informs the rest of the book, not in any maudlin way, but in the working out of grief for the young girl and in the grandmother’s acceptance of her own immortality. Grandmother is old and crotchety and fed up of being bossed around. She wants to swim, and smoke, and hike and feels her freedom is slipping away. But she is also weary and poorly. Sophia is also fed up of not being allowed to do whatever she wants and, between the two of them, they navigate this contradictory desire for freedom and safety.

‘You’re a very good climber,’ said Grandmother sternly. ‘And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him (father) about it? Or shouldn’t I?’

Sophie shrugged one shoulder and looked at her grandmother. ‘I guess maybe not,’ she said. ‘But you can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn’t go to waste.’

Each chapter is an episode, a small adventure, a story in itself. They are simply written but Jansson is an expert in subtext. She shows us the surface of the water but gives us the space to stare down into the clear and sometimes murky depths. This might be a small, quiet book, but it is mighty and vast.

I had a fantastic grandmother. She took me and my cousins on adventures. She had a rusty old van and we would loll around on a mattress in the back. Because of the rust bucket we were able to go to places we weren’t technically allowed to visit. She said we’d look like workmen. So we would explore dilapidated country houses, fishing for her beloved newts in ponds with crumbling fountains. We’d have picnics of hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and fish paste crusty rolls. She had a fruit knife and would peel apples from the garden. And there would always be a flask of coffee because tea was never the same from a Thermos.

If I asked her a question, she would generally answer it, though she might doctor the details to help me through, without ever patronising me. When I lost my father, at the age of ten, she didn’t talk directly about it, but like Sophia’s mother she continued to have adventures with me. I was lucky to have her until I was 41. Losing her was like having my heart cut out. But now, my heart has grown back and I think of the wonderful times we had and what she taught me. Which was much more than how to crochet (though she did that too).

If I am ever blessed enough to have a granddaughter, I hope I can be such a grandmother. And I will read this book to her.



We love the Moomins in the Duffy house, ever since the kids were small and we watched the cartoon series early in the mornings, bleary-eyed and exhausted, drifting off to the sometimes surreal, and always deep and meaningful, Moominvalley. Over the years I have discovered the genius of their Finnish-Swedish writer and illustrator, Tove Jansson (1914-2001). So here’s a very short tribute to her and the Mooomins.

The Moomins are trolls but not in the sense we usually think of trolls in this country. They are hippo-like, eccentric, cuddly, loving, adventurous, tolerant, and completely fabulous. They are enduring and full of quirky charm.moomin-comic-book-1

Tove Jansson found an unexpected fame with her Moomin creations which were the subject of several books of hers and later made into a comic strip which sold the world over. They’ve also been televised in different formats.

They were loosely based on members of her bohemian family, evolving over the years as she grew older and as her circumstances changed. But they were always rooted in her close contact with nature. The Moomins may live in a magical land but it is assuredly un-Disneylike. And assuringly believable.

Tove Jansson understood that life is light and dark – in Finland this is especially true with the long winters and eternal summer days. She first wrote about the Moomins at a time when Finland was supporting the Third Reich and reading the story in this light, you can see that the Moomins are subversive, tolerant, open-minded and caring. All traits that the Nazis did not share.

‘The live and let live Moominworld is tolerant of all types. Indeed the message is that without all types life would hardly be worth the journey… Children need strangeness. Adults assume that our world is sane and explicable – but to a child it is strange, often frightening, and not explicable at all, because the rules are hidden or unknown.’ Jeanette Winterson

If you have never encountered the Moomins before, then do try. If you remember them from childhood, then revisit. I am.

P.S. A while ago, a friend recommended The Summer Book and I felt an immediate affinity with the island described there, a mixture of the wilds of the coast of Devon and the serenity of a cottage I know in Canada.