Six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother, and sometimes Sophia’s father, are spending the summer together on an island, almost entirely to themselves. A friend comes and stays for a bit, they acquire a cat, they wander the island, they trespass on a neighbor’s land, they bicker and complain, and they give and receive quiet comfort.
In this short 1972 novel, Tove Jansson presents the story of this summer as a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected. In fact, I think the arrangement of the stories is more thematic than chronological. Although the book begins with the start of summer and ends with August, there are some points where the story, such as it is, seems to move back in time. It creates a sort of languid, drifting effect, where there’s no specific plan or destination. This summer is just about being, taking events as they come.
The writing, translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, is detailed in its descriptions of the island and weighted with feeling — although some reading between the lines is needed to find the depths. For instance, here’s what happens to Sophia and her grandmother’s project of gathering and carving things to create a “magic forest”:
One morning Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal — found it all by herself. Grandmother thought it was a seal skull. They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening. The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded in over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet. They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all its teeth.
Suddenly Sophia began to scream.
“Take it away!” she screamed. “Take it away!”
Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep. Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house. They could build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil.
Sophia’s mother has just died, a fact that is mentioned almost as a aside, just as the explanation for her being at the island. But Sophia’s fear of the skull, and her preoccupation with Heaven and whether and how God responds to prayer, could perhaps be traced back to her mother’s recent death. (Also to being six and curious, but the death gives her questions more potency.) But that’s never delved into. This is very much a book about the immediate moment. It’s almost as if summer, and the island, is its own separate space, untouched by events that take place elsewhere.
I could see the craft and care put into this book, but I wish I loved it more than I did. I got too caught up in trying to put a sequence to things and to tie the vignettes together. I suppose I don’t have the knack for the kind of aimless meandering embodied in this summer story. But in the right mood, I can see how this book could enrapture me. Perhaps it could you, too.