05 June 2011

Book Review: Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

I am not sure I ever would have picked up this book if not for the fact that Simon at Stuck In A Book raves about Tove Jansson's work. And a good thing too. These are brilliant, beautifully written short stories that make me look forward to reading Jansson's longer fiction.

I am always at a loss as to how to review a book of short stories--and this collection of Jansson's stories seem particularly hard to capture by an amateur such as myself. Although Jansson's writing is fairly straightforward, there is something kind of otherworldly about these stories. As I reflected on the collection, I was thinking that its other worldliness had to do with the words themselves. I started to remember her writing as poetic. But then I looked back and sampled some of her prose and realized that it was not the source of the other worldliness. On a superficial level there is something very European about the stories that feels otherworldly to me, but that doesn't seem to be the source of it either. I think what it really comes down to is that each of the stories, no matter the details, feels infused with a contentment and restlessness that seems only knowable through the lens of old age. There is a perspective that either rises above, or rebels against, the mundane details of life.

Among the varied stories included in this collection their were a few that I particularly liked. A couple alone in a little cottage on a gull-filled island. An old man who arrives at his destination only to forget where he is staying. A woman unhinged by the death of an acquaintance. An old man (another one) in a silent skirmish over a park bench unwittingly makes a friend.

As it is for me with many short stories, there were a few that made me scratch my head a bit, wondering if I really understood what was going on. I think sometimes my way of thinking requires a single answer, one correct, officially author-authorized way to interpret a story.  The obsession for clarity abates with a little discussion, but sometimes when I am in the middle of such abstraction it makes me wonder why I don't get it. But alas, that says much about me, and not much about these stories.

Now I can't wait to see what Jansson does with a novel.


  1. I have Jansson works on my wish list right now too, and am getting more and more curious by the day. As for short stories, it is difficult to discuss a whole collection in this format because there is far too much to cover. I usually wind up picking one or two I really enjoyed and focusing upon them.

    And I do not think that an "obsession for clarity" is such a bad thing. :) But I do think that short stories do not promise that. Rather than providing a full narrative arc, they often provide the contents of just a moment. Like snapshots rather than a full album.

  2. Oh, wonderful, Thomas! I'm glad my ravings worked. And for a supposed amateur, you write really well about short stories - I always find it so challenging to write a review that encompasses everything in a collection, but you've done it here.

    Of Jansson's novels, The True Deceiver is perhaps my favourite - very unsentimental and quite.. erm.. not dark, but not light either. And The Summer Book is just beautifully evocative of a quiet Scandinavian island - not that I've ever been to one, but it felt evocative to me nonetheless!

  3. Completely agree with Simon about The Summer Book. And I have been to Scandinavian islands! So evocative ... made me long to go back.

  4. Frances: I really do need to think of short stories as snapshots. I think that would help me a lot.

    Simon: I think I will have to read The Summer Book next, as the idea of a quiet Scandinavian island is very appealing to me.

    Mary: Maybe I will read it while I am on an island off the coast of Maine this summer. Maybe there will be similarities.


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