For most people, Tove Jansson is primarily associated with those strangely hippopotomoid bastions of children’s lit, the Moomins. This is, as the introduction to the new translation of her book The True Deceiver points out, a real shame: not because the Moomins were rubbish, but because her other work is wonderful.
Set in a small Scandinavian town, it’s a very simple, quiet tale of a woman named Katri, her brother, and their relationship with the richest woman in town, a painter called Anna. But that quiet is the deceptive silence of winter, a blanket of snow covering a deeper tale of human beings and their relationships with art, the world, and each other. If it’s simple, it’s in the same way that that blanket of snow is simple, cold and harsh and beautiful, all-encompassing, and breathtaking in its bleakness.
You’d be forgiven for reading that last paragraph and assuming I’ve entirely lost my marbles – probably recovering from hypothermia or struck with a particularly unfortunate case of seasonal affective disorder or something. Actually, it’s just that the book is that good, and the poetry of snow permeates it on every level. The Scandinavian winter is just as much a character as Katri, and it provides the only possible language to describe the experience of reading this book.
It’s simply an astonishing book. I mean that in the most literal way – it’s sort of surprising, and not just on a ‘this-woman-wrote-the-Moomins?‘ level. It’s also not just because the usual convenient and happy resolution is so utterly lacking, either. There’s something in the style, so simple as to be stylised, that comes out the other side into a kind of hyper-reality, where you feel more real and more awake for reading it. Little phrases, like “people woke up late, for there was no longer any morning” and “It must have been important to someone at some time…” kept hitting me out of the blue. It’s just that sort of work.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Poetry doesn’t work the same for everyone, after all. This book is so stark, so clean like bleached bones or the inside of a crater, that it’s not difficult to imagine it being off-putting to some. It’s also true there’s not much of a plot: relatively little happens, and the events remain stubbornly life-shaped rather than story-shaped.
(There is an ending – it’s not a book that makes you feel annoyed and cheated that it just stops – but ‘convenient’ and ‘resolved’ it is not.)
It’s also a very cold book. Not in the sense of lacking an emotional connection with or compassion for its characters, but in terms of seeing them with no filter, no remorse or fuzzied edges, but just exactly as they are. There’s a sense of the roles of character being stripped away to leave an image so crystal clear it’s disconcerting in its relentlessness: the way everyone looks spotty and awkward and real if you focus in enough and there’s a bright enough light.
Any Cop?: Oh god, yes. I read Ali Smith’s introduction in my copy thinking it was maybe a little over the top in its rhapsodising, but ended up thinking it was exactly rhapsodic enough. It’s definitely true, though, that “staggeringly good” doesn’t mean “comfortable”.