Translated by Thomas Teal
When I read The Summer Book for last year’s Nordic FINDS, I was overwhelmed by the unsentimental but understated beauty of Tove Jansson’s prose, so I had to read another book by her this year. I chose her 1982 novel The True Deceiver which she wrote when she was 68, again translated fairly recently by Thomas Teal.
My Norway read for the month was Tarjei Vesaas’s touching novella The Birds – and I soon discovered that my Finnish pick is another book about a sister who brings up a younger brother who is considered neurodiverse.
People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. That kept people at a distance. […]
The boy Mats didn’t count. He was fifteen, ten years younger than his sister, tall and strong and considered a bit simple. He did odd jobs in the village but mostly hung out in the Liljeberg brothers’ boat shed when work hadn’t stopped because of the cold. The Liljebergs gave him small jobs that were not too important.
Jansson’s Katri is very different to Vesaas’s Hege though, and Mats is both literate and able to work – if slowly and methodically – and will turn out to be a fine draughtsman, unlike Mattis in The Birds. Katri and Mats live above the village store, with Katri’s big unnamed dog. They are very self-contained and neither really have any friends. Katri is known for her fearsome yellow eyes and the local kids call her ‘witch’ behind her back. Katri is both clever and resourceful, and particularly good with numbers and money – she did the store’s books for ages, and helps the villagers with all their financial problems – an unofficial accountant. But she stopped doing the store’s books, and she and Mats are growing out of the apartment upstairs, so they may need to find somewhere else to live – but where?
The elderly Anna Aemelin lives alone in a large house on the edge of the village near the lighthouse. She is a successful illustrator of children’s books, specialising in detailed depictions of the deep forest – populated with rabbits which have flowers on them – a subject of endless fascination to her young fans, but spoiling the pictures in grown-up points of view. The villagers nickname her house the ‘rabbit house’.
Perhaps the reason people called Anna Aemelin nice was because nothing had ever forced her to exhibit malice, and because she had an uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things. She just shook them off and continued on her own vague but stubborn way. In fact, her spoiled benevolence was frightening, but no one had ever had time to notice. […] …she was only fully alive when she devoted herself to her singular ability to draw, and when she drew she was naturally always alone.
One day in the store, when the chap who delivers the village’s post was moaning about the trek out to the rabbit house in the snow, Katri says she’ll take Anna’s post to her. A way to see inside the house, and the inklings of a plan to make herself indispensable to Anna Aemelin and for herself and Mats to be invited to move in are soon brewing.
Thus the novel takes a turn towards psychological drama as Katri discovers Anna’s blind spots towards her finances – she’s actually very well off – and Katri gradually manipulates her, via a faked break-in, to have them as live-in companions. Surprisingly, Mats gets on very well with Anna, they both love the same kinds of adventure books and will read them in turn and discuss. Katri finds ways to convince Anna that everyone has been ripping her off for years, and Anna lets her take the gains for Mats. Anna doesn’t seem to care much, which is frustrating to Katri! The two women increasingly circle around each other, and the tension builds – is Anna manipulating Katri too in their web of truth and lies? By the time the thaw comes, both women will have changed.
Katri, Anna and to a slightly lesser extent, Mats, were all drawn so well. Katri sees things in such black and white terms at the beginning of the novel, yet she is fascinating and you are drawn to her. Mats is a humble soul, not necessarily the simpleton everyone makes him out to be. Anna is the total opposite to Katri, except in her single-mindedness; she is capricious and appears gullible, but there is some metal underneath. The two women may be oppsites, but they’ve both been solitary too long, and may actually need each other.
This novel has hidden depths, much is left unsaid, but Jansson’s way with words, wonderfully rendered by translator Teal is apparent on every page. I loved it!
Source: Own copy. Sort of Books, flapped paperback, 201 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)