Tove Jansson is better known as the creator of the Moomins. She is less well known for her stories for adults, but according to the intro to this collection by Ali Smith, she mostly wrote for adults when she was between the ages of 50 – 80 years old. This collection contains 13 stories from her first book for adults, Sculptor’s Daughter, first published in 1968. There are also 7 stories written from 1971 – 1996, translated for the first time into English for this collection.
A Winter book is split into 3 sections. It’s not all stories set in Winter, perhaps I was expecting the title to be too literal!
It begins with a section called Snow. Some stories are directly about her childhood. The daughter of artist parents, a sense of her childhood is evoked in Parties. Others are pure fantasy, like The Stone, a retelling of the story of Sisyphus.
The Dark begins with Tove describing how she scares her childhood friend. A darkness in the wilds around their home is also described, and linked in with the joy of ice skating. It moves onto a tunnel she is digging in her family home, her parents love for fires and bible stories. All in a few pages. It’s all probably very Finnish.
I found the first section of the book the least interesting. Each story jumped around so much I missed having a narrative!
The second part of the book: Flotsam and Jetsam, has stories connected with the sea. Ultimately though, I’m not sure I care that much about flotsam, jetsam and fishing… There’s nothing wrong with each story, I just think I prefer a more coherent story.
The last story, The Boat and Me, is lovely. A 12 year old Tove taking her first boat out on a 24hr round trip alone. Without her parents knowing. She’s so fearless and full of adventure. She discovers her mum does know about the trip and she helps her keep it secret, but pretends not to know to her father:
…she was on my side as far as deceiving Dad went. He would never have let me go. And I’m pretty sure Mum would never have managed to deceive her own father, who never let her sleep in a tent or even wear a sailor-suit collar. A terrible century.
The last section is Travelling Light. We have moved away from the young girl stories and are now dealing with older people. In The Squirrel, an old lady living alone on an island gets a squirrel island-mate who has appeared on a floating wood raft. The image I’m left with of an old lady running around the island, waving her hands in the air, making loud noises, to annoy the squirrel, who has slighted her in some way, is brilliant.
Correspondence is fan mail received by Tove from a Japanese fan. I struggled with this one at first – couldn’t really see it’s value. By the end, it is one of my favourite stories. You don’t get much text, and you only get one side of the conversation, but it’s sweet, funny and heartbreaking. How the fan is put off from a face to face trip to Finland is genius:
I understand the forest’s big in Finland and the sea too but your house is very small. It’s a beautiful thought, to meet a writer only in her books.
The final story, Taking Leave is about old age and when you need to decide you are not capable of living your usual life and must make changes because of your age.
And that last summer something unforgivable happened: I became afraid of the sea.
This one is more obviously autobiographical than some of the other stories and that just makes it more moving.
Overall, I took a while to warm to this book. I was wondering if I just didn’t like the short story format. I really slowed down in my reading of it and struggled to get past the middle section. It’s my first read of a short story collection. But, I really enjoyed Travelling Light, the final section about old age. I keep going over several stories in my mind, and clearly I’ve had a lot to say about this book – unusual for me when I’ve quite liked something! I usually only find a lot to say in criticism! There are lovely photos illustrating the stories and I would really recommend this Finnish adventure!