Based on Tove Jansson’s own summers in the cottage she built with her brother Lars on a tiny island they discovered in the gulf of Finland in 1947; The Summer Book follows a companionable summer shared between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, characters inspired by her own artist mother, Signe Hammarsten and her niece Sophia.
In the introduction Esther Freud describes how on a visit it takes her precisely 4½ minutes to walk around the island, but after being there for a couple of days she falls into ‘island time’ and realises ‘it would need a whole summer to discover everything there is to do’. And I felt that this was true of the reading. The short chapters with titles like ‘The Neighbour’ or ‘The Pasture’ or ‘Playing Venice’ entice you to slow down, don’t rush and dip into the adventures and conversations that Sophia and her grandmother are having, reading and absorbing in island time.
Sophia and her grandmother are so far apart in age but in the contained space of the house and island they are connected by their wonderfully creative and eccentric imaginations. That the island is a living place that they can’t possess or control is never taken for granted. Finding just the right sand under some juniper bushes for a nap, watching the sky, clouds and sea or navigating their way by old wild rose bushes; rocks and moss and miniature meadows of flowers, the tiny detail of the flora and fauna of the island is woven into their games.
The Summer Book was written in 1972 and finishes with the closing up of the house for the winter. I was struck by their generosity as they leave the house ready for anyone whose boat gets stranded there. Notices are left with instructions for using the fire and to make sure they don’t confuse the salt with sugar. I don’t know if this still happens, or if it’s common practice in Finland but at a time when I see more and more ‘Private, Keep Off’ signs this was so refreshingly warm and welcoming, that it made me love it even more.