I was going to chat about all the books I read on holiday, but I’m too sleepy to do so. Have just come back from a village pub quiz, to which I went with my family. We managed to come first, and I contributed about eight answers, two of which were ‘Dolly Parton’. Worrying. And only one of which wasn’t already given by someone else on the team. No literature round, you see.
ANYWAY I’m supposed to be talking about books, aren’t I? So I’ll kick off with my favourite of the four, Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book. Cue picture.
As you may remember, The Summer Book was the first book to feature in my ’50 Books…’ (though that list isn’t in any particular order), and so I was merely exercising my civic/blogic duty when purchasing this publication from ‘Sort Of Books’ (an offshoot of Penguin, I believe). I worried a little that sunny beaches wouldn’t put me in the right frame of mind for a wintery book – but I needn’t have worried. The lack of sun was a dampener on parts of the holiday, but put me in completely the right position to read about chilly Finland. Finland? One of the Scandinavian countries, I can never remember which.
On the other hand, the contents belie the title anyway – this collection of stories, taken from various other collections, aren’t all wintery. Some of them are positively scorching – and Jansson is so brilliant at writing about temperature and weather, that you feel it. In fact, the term ‘evocative’ could have been invented for Jansson’s writing – perhaps because it’s a translation, but every word in this anthology has such depth, and feeling, and is quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Except for The Summer Book.
The stories are mostly from the perspective of Tove as a child, though some towards the end focus on old age. Each one is slight, with little of significance occuring – in ‘Jeremiah’, the child competes for the attentions of a foreigner collecting bits and pieces on the beach; ‘Snow’ describes moving house, and the consequent interpretations the child transfers onto the snowdrift; ‘The Iceberg’ concerns, surprisingly, an iceberg arriving at the coast, which the little girl can’t quite reach: “It lay there bumping against the rocks at the end of the point where it was deep. and there was deep black water and just the wring distance between us. If it had been shorter I should have jumped over; if it had been a little longer I could have thought: ‘What a pity, no one can manage to get over that’. Now I had to make up my mind. And that’s an awful thing to have to do.”
I get quite irritated by books which boast of how much you’ll learn about the nation, culture etc. When I read fiction, I don’t want a travel manual. But Jansson achieves something much better – the reader is immersed in the life of the child, country and all, and all sorts of local details flood in, without being obtrusive.
Perhaps it is underwhelming to end a review with simply “read it”. I’m sure Karen will do better when she reports back. But I’ve rarely had a more involving and beautiful reading experience than with Jansson’s short stories, and if I could have two books by the same author on my ’50 Books…’ list…
Second favourite short story writer. Can you guess the first?