Truly it was eden. Those end of summer days in a cottage with three friends in furthest Finland. There was no electricity. We lit coloured candles and played cards by flickering light. There was no running water. We filled our buckets by the lake, lit the sauna, took turns in washing each other’s hair. We grilled fish and vegetables on a rack set between red bricks above a floundering fire.
Some of us climbed trees and others climbed hills and wore their silhouettes as ballgowns at sunset. Some of us read and swam and took the boat out on the water. I went slightly loony trying to write a love story and it made perfect sense to me to float away fully clothed until a sentence came my way. I spun myself dry. I felt quite like myself.
It was a summer of idyll and wonder. These sorts of summers cannot be fabricated, though I’m lucky to have known other summers and hope for more to come. Still. You never know what’s coming for you.
If a moment in time cannot be recreated, then a book is often a very good substitute. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson brought me back to Finland and seemed to echo the particular feeling of my time there if not the same story or circumstances: the peaceful passing of hours, so pleasant but shadowed by an internal restlessness; a profound sense of care and companionship struggling to co-exist with the need to be alone sometimes; a simplicity of communication – long periods passed in silence but every conversation filled with insight, import and implication. Except when we were talking nonsense and bickering!
Just like six year old Sophia and her grandmother in this slight but weighty novel. They explore their solitary island hand in hand but another kind of exploration is happening within each of them: exploring the meaning of life, the beauty and baseness of nature, the question of god, the question of what comes after, what happens when you wake up and remember that you’re on an island and you have the whole bed to yourself because your mother is dead?
Somber stuff, and yet not at all. The seasons know nothing of our grief and heartaches; summer speeds and meanders on regardless. It is full of flowering change and rainless stagnation, of storms and the calm before them. In our darkest days, it glistens and shines. Jansson captures this essence of summer in her book, it’s the most beautiful collection of vignettes. Though it evokes a very particular summer for me, it’s the kind of book that will mean so many things to so many people.
These few words between child and grandmama illustrate so perfectly the headspace I was in that August. Sophia finds a grey fisherman’s cat and takes him home but no matter how hard she tries to ingratiate herself, it runs away and refuses to be cared for:
“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.
It’s nice to read a book that reminds you of days gone by. It’s even nicer to read a book and know that, in some ways, you’re light years beyond them.