Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge.
I’m a big fan of Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories. I have been from childhood, when I borrowed Comet in Moominland from my primary school library. I love the way they deal with serious matters and reflect the best and worst of human nature through the curious inhabitants of Moomin Valley. I’m also a fan of Jansson’s fiction for adults, which is steadily being translated into English.
My first encounter with Jansson’s adult fiction was The Summer Book, which is as perfect a collection of short stories as you could hope to meet. Each one is a beautiful jewel, and they string together wonderfully well. It’s one of my favourite books, and quickly became one that I bought for or recommended to others.
I enjoyed but was less enamoured by the short story collections A Winter Book, Fair Play and Sculptor’s Daughter, but felt a deep thrill when I read her novel The True Deceiver. I loved its darkness and the way Jansson got across isolation and social awkwardness.
Travelling Light is more in the vein of The Summer Book and The True Deceiver, with its explorations of people’s relationship to each other. Often, the characters don’t fully understand themselves, and their rubbing up against others reveals something new about them to themselves and to others. There are stories about how different generations don’t always understand each other, and stories about how people with a different outlook to our own can make us uncomfortable and raise a mirror to our own self-image that causes us to behave in atypical ways. Some of the tales have a hard edge of tension to them. Something unknown happens at the edge of the action we are involved in, something unsettling, as in the story about a man who leaves his hat on a plane and forgets which hotel he is staying at, and the story about the artist returning to the city where she became a painter and finding that her past has been rewritten in her absence. There is something gentle but excruciatingly creepy about that particular story, called The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. In it, Jansson plays with the idea of an unreliable narrator. Of the three characters who are physically present in the story, we know so little about them that it’s impossible to know which one to believe. We all interpret events slightly differently, even when we have been present at the same thing.
A thread that runs through all of Jansson’s work, and particularly in this collection, is bossiness. Many of Jansson’s characters think they know best, enough to railroad other people. Her stories don’t judge that trait, but they do offer a perspective on it. Jansson looks at why people might feel compelled to impose their views on others, and what effect that imposition has on both sides. Often fear of not having meaning in the world is at the root of it. A story called The Garden of Eden is an example of this. I tried to find a link to the Biblical story of Paradise and The Fall in my mind, but could only come up with the notion that things that appear perfect on the surface often have flaws the more you burrow into them. Knowledge, or what we believe we know to be true, leads to suspicion and alters behaviour. Especially when we are made to feel that we have done something wrong. We justify our own behaviour by castigating the other person for theirs. We seek to blame someone else for our own shortcomings.
The story called The Hothouse was one of my favourites in the book. I think because the character called Uncle made me think of Moominpapa. He had his own little ways that he didn’t like to be disrupted, but when they were he became curious about the other person causing the disruption, working out a way to bring back a sort of peace.
The book ends with a series of letters written to Jansson by a Japanese teenage girl. She sums up one of the things I love most about Jansson’s fiction – the presence of lonely islands as destinations, characters and agents for change.
How many lonely islands are there in Finland?
Can anyone live there who wants to?
I want to live on an island.
I love lonely islands and I love flowers and snow.
But I can’t write how they are.