Thursday, 22 April 2010

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson was originally known in Britain for her Moomin books, but her fiction for adults has gradually been introduced by Sort Of Books, a great publishing company who produce really beautiful editions.

2003 saw the publication of The Summer Book, a story about a young girl , her grandmother and their summer together on a Finnish Island. In 2006 a collection of short stories called The Winter Tales arrived and Fair Play, a novel about two women artists and their partnership followed in 2009.

I had no idea that The True Deceiver, Jansson's last novel had been published at the end of last year, and so was delighted to unwrap it on Christmas morning.

It is very difficult to dissect a Tove Jansson novel, as her prose is so subtle and yet solid. It is no surprise that Ali Smith, the novelist who said 'I want to make a book so strong that you can hit it with a hammer and it doesn't fall apart. That's all.', is a fan.

The True Deceiver is set in a Scandanavian village which is experiencing a long, cold winter. Katri Kling wants the house and money of the local artist, Anna Aemelin, so that she can provide for her slow, younger brother, Mats.

Katri is cold, smart and uncompromising and Anna is a rabbit-faced hermit who is vague about everyday details. The two women strike up an uneasy acquaintance that is part professional, part friendly and almost familial. It is never clear who has the upper hand.

Jannson's writing is like a polished pebble, fished from the bottom of an icy river. There are no extraneous descriptions and there is so much unsaid in this novel. There is almost an entire shadow novel hidden behind the actual book. The writing is so clever and delicately wrought that it is impossible to gain a firm grip on the plot. It is a block of exquisitely carved ice, the cold burn of which is felt long after the reader had finished.

'In the morning, an invisible Katri had put a breakfast tray beside Anna's bed. Fires in the tile stoves, a bowl of periwinkles, the hem of her dressing gown mended. The right book opened to the bookmark beside Anna's plate. A lot of small things, everywhere, all day. But Katri continued to be invisible. Anna grew more and more uneasy, it was like having a spirit in the house, one of those magically enslaved and obedient pixies that frequent the castles in fairy tales, diligent creatures, ever-present but always just vanishing. You catch a glimpse of movement and turn around - but there's nothing there, a door closing silently.'

There is no neat wrapping up of loose ends at the close of this novel neither does it stop abruptly at a pivotal scene. The final chapters are so quiet, yet filled with raw emotion. It is a story that I fully expect to live with for quite some time.


  1. Wow, you've told a story with your review! I've never heard of this writer before. It sounds intense.

    -Lydia @ The Literary Lollipop

  2. Hi Lydia,

    That's the great thing about Tove Jansson's books, they are intense and deal with serious issues, but the writing feels so light and spare. I don't think it's a coincidence that reviewers keep comparing her work to ice, wind and stone.

    Thanks for stopping by!