Yea, Thou I Walk Through the Tiny Scandinavian Island of the Shadow of Death

Yea, Thou I Walk Through the Tiny Scandinavian Island of the Shadow of Death July 9, 2020

Last night I finished The Summer Book, Tove Jansson’s quirky, haunting little novel about a girl and her grandmother, and the summers they spent together on one of the tiny islands off the coast of Finland. It’s not a slice-of-life so much as a series of slices, like a cake dome filled with thin wedges of twenty different kinds of cake. I loved it and it’s a perfect read for a summer which will, I think, be memorable for many of us as a kind of shadow season, a time carved out from normal life and defined by the absence of normality.

The Summer Book is mostly though not entirely from the grandmother’s perspective. She’s old enough now to have recaptured some of the absurdity and helplessness of childhood, though with a self-awareness that the little girl Sophia can’t yet have. Like Sophia she’s irritable and fanciful. They argue about whether there’s a Hell; they hide with one another and fuss with one another, and make a book together, about angleworms and “Other Pitiful Animals”: “Write: I hate field mice. No, write: I hate field mice, but I don’t like it when they die. …They don’t know they’re unfortunate creatures.”

All the events are small. Sophia has a friend over to the island and then gets fed up with her. A cat is unsatisfying. Sophia invests a bathrobe with an enormous weight of frightening fantasy. Sophia and her grandmother break in to a new neighbor’s house, then run away from him, then share a drink with him, then let him alone. Even the great storm toward the end of the book has no casualties, which we’re told up-front, before the eerie yellow haze across the whole island has even turned black with the gathering thundercloud. There’s a strong ethos of leaving people be: Even the grandmother’s assiduous hospitality consists in leaving notes and tools for anyone to use who might be stranded on the island while they’re not there–the only kind of hospitality which is also solitude!

All summers draw inevitably toward their end. And this is the recurring theme of The Summer Book, the different perspectives Sophia and her grandmother have on death from their two ends of life. There’s a chapter, “The Scolder,” a perfectly-carved short story in which the grandmother takes a walk with her granddaughter, finds a dead seabird, lies down and looks at the grass, and then talks to Sophia and finds that she’s already forgotten the bird–it’s a miniature which is half sublimity, half self-deprecating irony.

Sophia dreams one night of their luggage floating away into a channel in the floor: “All the suitcases were full of darkness and moss, and none of them ever came back.”

Photo of Tove Jansson via Wikimedia Commons.

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