The Summer Book is a fresh, vivid and magical novel about seemingly endless summers of discovery. An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away the summer together, on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland, their solitude disturbed only by migrating birds, sudden storms and an occasional passing boat. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, foibles and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that engulfs not only the summer inhabitants, but the very island itself. Tove Jansson writes with a special toughness, and with a quiet, dry sense of humour, about a small girl and her grandmother, who as kindred spirits share the long days together.
A while back I went on a bit of a Scandinavian literature binge and with summer finally here, this naturally seemed like the perfect book to read. The blurb is extremely appealing and I looked forward to a sedate wallow in the lives of these characters.
Told in a series of short vignettes, each one gives us little flashes of island life, I particularly enjoyed the disjointed feeling of being set down at random times to experience the adventures of the duo as they go about quietly and peacefully puzzling out the mysteries of life. There is a sagacity that charmingly shifts betwixt the two, which coupled with a range of emotions and lessons learned makes one wonder which of the two really has the wisdom.
The relationship between the grandmother and Sophia feels realistic and the interplay between the two is interesting and knowing fractious in that comfortable family way. My one annoyance with the book was Sophia herself, first off she came across as precocious but then her constant outbursts became annoying and then just plain grating. I stopped short of disliking her though because of the young ‘uns natural curiosity and her manner of always being in a rush whilst she is in the midst of so much she will later wish she had savoured.
Each story is well written and of varied (but still short) length, ranging from just a couple of pages to ten pages. I did find the philosophising a little too simplistic for my tastes however, its pleasant enough and the isolation of the island setting does help to enhance the stories and their messages but the overall impression I took from these stories of people living around nature and contemplating it, are overly familiar and lack the incisive bite that I prefer in my books.
The island is the star of the show for me, its remoteness from the outside world and small size of the island gives the feeling of it being its own world out of time. Despite the islands size or lack of it, there is plenty of scope for peaceable adventures in this beautiful and natural setting, it has a pleasant homely feel, somewhere we would all wish to spend our time marooned alone with our thoughts.
Overall I was underwhelmed by the book, it held so much promise but failed to deliver. I can see why people like it, it offers a few little philosophical nods and is pleasant in most ways except for the child sometimes but really I just found it…nice. It’s an adjective that I avoid wherever possible but it’s apt in this instance, it’s an amiable read but I just expected more substance for my money, especially from something considered a modern classic.