Postal Reading group
March 2021
Notes on the books A Summer book and The Winter book by Tove Jansson

Although Tove Jansson is more famous for her writing for children in the form of the Moomin books, The seemingly complementary Summer book and Winter book are one of her forays into writing for adults.

Initially I thought of both of these books as being a pair, dealing with a similar cast of characters, but at different times of the year. However, despite some similarities, there seems to be little in common. I approached the Summer book first, if for no other reason than wanting to look forwards after what has been a particularly dull winter. I was also looking forwards to both of these books, but the idea of a summer spent on an island in Scandinavia sounded particularly idyllic. I am also interested in Scandinavia and find much to admire in their way of life; overall it is an area of Europe that I wish I were able to visit more often than I have.

Sadly, however, I was disappointed by both of these books. To start with, it is difficult to know how to classify these books. They would appear to be very short stories, and while each one can be read as an isolated instance, they all centre around the same characters, and tell some sort of a story about their summer on the island. The problem with the latter view is the lack of any kind of plot, and very little continuous narrative. The individual stories or chapters do seem to be in chronological order, however.

Although Jansson’s writing does a good job of conveying some of the solitude of a summer spent on a small island, and giving a good sense of place without focussing too much on the details, the problem is that each story, chapter, or incident is too short to develop any real narrative. I assume that there is meant to be some wisdom to be taken away from each one, but, in many cases I was unable to find it. Many of the stories just seem to stop abruptly, and left me thinking “is that it?” The first one, The morning swim, is a good case in point. At just four pages in length, it finishes before anyone actually swims. What do we learn from this? Perhaps that the sea is cold around Scandinavian islands even in summer!

Another problem is the limited cast of characters. This would be fine if they were particularly good or appealing. However, with an extremely distant father, it comes down to a petulant six year old and her elderly grandmother. An unlikely combination, even if the grandmother does display remarkable patience in the face of the child’s moods.

Occasionally once of the stories did briefly make me think, and the better ones from the collection were The Cat and Sophia’s storm. The former reminds us that you can never entirely take away a cat’s independence, nor change their true nature; essentially, a cat is never entirely domesticated. The latter story, in my opinion, offers a wry look at some of the problems with prayer. Sophia is so delighted when God grants the storm she prays for, that she quite forgets all the damage that was probably done. At least I know why my prayers for world peace were never granted: God was too busy wreaking havoc in an effort to prevent young children from being bored. From the Winter book, I also enjoyed Travelling light which very accurately describes the difficulty of enjoying an uneventful journey when your fellow travellers wish to tell their life stories. Having had some similarly eventful railway journeys in mainland Europe, I can testify how realistic this was.

The Winter book changes more than just the time of year, and exchanges the island for city life during the winter. Although it begins with the same style of very short stories, it deals with a different cast of characters, and the third section also sees the introduction of some of the author’s correspondence, making for an even more disjointed collection. The styles of the individual stories are also more diverse, making for an even stranger collection.

Some also seem rather unlikely such as The Squirrel, where the lady celebrates in the freedom of being relieved of any choice when the squirrel finally floats away in her boat, having presumably eaten through the rope securing it. Equally, The Enormous plastic sausage which describes the length they went to in order to obtain fresh water for a range of unsuitable plants. One might have thought the moral would be “choose your plants more carefully”, yet I note that the same tender plants are still with them later in the book. Equally, if you’re going to tow a large bag full of water back to the island, why not have your own reverse osmosis desalination plant?

In conclusion, I found the stories in these two collections too short to permit much narrative, and although there is probably a moral to some of them, all too often it is difficult to discern and hidden amongst an abrupt ending to the story. The fairly small cast of characters in each story doesn’t help either, and despite the occasional incident which succeeds in making one think, the overall effect of both books is disappointing.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler