After hearing the Finnish writer Tove Jansson much praised over at Stuck-in-a-Book I was pleased to happen across the story collection a A Winter Book . Deceptively simple and always elegant these short masterpieces are captivating. In the interests of Short Story September I am just going to review one story but I heartily recommend the whole collection.
'Taking Leave' is the last story in A Winter Book. It concerns growing old and recognizing that you are doing so, building psychological defences and making adjustments. The narrator and her partner Tooti have spent each summer upon a Finnish island but after many years they know their annual summer idyll is coming to an end. The realization has come on gradually:
There came a summer when it was suddenly an effort to pull in the nets. The terrain became unmanageable and treacherous. This made us more surprised than alarmed, perhaps we weren't old enough yet...
But eventually things are clearly too much:
And that last summer something unforgivable happened: I became afraid of the sea. Large waves were no longer connected with adventure, only anxiety and responsibility for the boat, and indeed all the boats that ply the sea in bad weather.
So together they deal with it, though the dealing is mostly presented through Tooti. Tooti is packing, which is a 'love' as 'she is so good at it'. So packing for the final time is reviewed in the context of all the previous packings they have done. Instead of dwelling on the final pack to leave we get lists of things that they habitually bring to the island. In this way past and present, previous comings and goings, are woven together. They do acknowledge their coming absence with notes all over the house explaining things for the next occupant. But even here they connect with the future by hiding a bottle of rum in the 'secret room' as a 'reward' for the next occupant when they find it. These projections back and forth are crystallized by Tooti's intervention in the narrative. She wants the narrator, Tove, to tell the story of their boat the Victoria and she is keen to have it done just right. Tooti demands:
"And write it in the present tense, which makes it seem more dramatic. Like this, for example: the sea rises violently, turning black and speckled, the house gives a shudder then its all over."
And in this way we have a story within a story as Tooti both narrates and comments on her narration of the story of Victoria. The narrator lets Tooti do the packing because she loves it and is good at it, but the narration itself is surely her own territory. By handing the narration over to Tooti threads are again woven between narrators and narratees within and without the story, and more poignantly the narrator is perhaps slightly worried about the sureness of her hands when hauling her wordy fishing nets onto the shore of the story. Losses, absences and a sense of diminution in old age are thus shared and together they deal with it. The last paragraph, again narratively pushed by Tooti as she is the subject, is positive and uplifting as the narration literally floats off at the end, a fading but also a launching. I have no idea what Tove Jansson's spiritual leanings are but it is hard not impute an after-life, and an extension of 'now', but one that is successful in a different temporal and physical medium, and so despite everything we feel Tove and Tooti soar.
From childhood to old age these stories are exquisite and multifaceted. Not diamonds, tempting though that analogy is, as that is too grounded and weighty, but rather the jewels of nature seem the most appropriate metaphors: snowflakes, dew drops ...
And, recollecting its own light,
Does, in its pure and cirling thoughts, express
The greater heaven in the heaven less. (Andrew Marvell)
A Winter Book by Tove Jansson is published by Sort of Books is blessed by a delicately weighted introduction by Ali Smith as well as afterwords by Esther Freud, Philip Pullman and Frank Cottrell Boyce.