Art in Nature, By Tove Jansson

Dreamlike trip through the magic of life

When reading anything by Tove Jansson, one cannot quite ignore the looming hippo-shaped shadow of the Finnish author's legendary creation, the Moomins. At the time of her death in 2001, those loveable, large-snouted trolls had made Jansson an international name, one synonymous with a particularly Scandinavian take on children's books. And that is how it would have remained if it hadn't been for Sort of Books posthumously publishing her novel, The Summer Book, two years later. The book, a touching fable of an old lady and her granddaughter enjoying a sun-blushed season on an island in the Gulf of Finland, became a bestseller and introduced a new adult audience to her dreamlike imagination.

The latest fiction of Jansson's to be translated and published in Britain is Art in Nature, a sublime little collection of stories that is full of boats and beach houses, painting and plays. In the title tale, a gallery warden discovers a couple by a lake arguing over the meaning of a picture. He provides them with a new and wonderfully inconclusive solution to the debate. "It's the mystery that's important, somehow very important," realises the caretaker. In Jansson's world, not knowing is a wonderful thing. In "White Lady", three middle-aged ladies, one of them a novelist, enjoy a night out with youngsters at a seaside restaurant. "I write books for young people and they don't know who I am," ponders the writer. "And I know nothing about them, either. Funny, isn't it." It's a bittersweet scene for Jansson to have composed; she entertained a generation of children but had none herself.

In "A Sense of Time", a man worries about his grandmother's loss of temporal understanding. "Grandmother's private, interior world must be very strong if she can so serenely deny the sun and moon," he frets. "I wonder what it is that shines for her and makes her so terribly certain and calm." The twist is that her senility is a blessing, affording her freedom and serenity while the young man is riven with anxieties.

Jansson's writing is imbued with a singular view of human existence, in which puzzles and uncertainty, even illness and danger, have positive and magical potential. This is a wonderful archipelago of stories. Readers will enjoy anchoring in each of its coves before setting sail for the next.

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