Adventures in literature: bestselling author Tove Jansson explores relationships in the Gulf of Finland

Best known for her Moomin books, Tove Jansson (1914-2001) captivated adults and children alike with the surreal adventures of her cartoon trolls and their unique fantasyland. A respected artist, Jansson exhibited throughout Europe, drew satirical cartoons for the Finnish and British press and illustrated Scandinavian editions of several books by Lewis Carroll and Tolkien. Born in Helsinki, Jansson spent childhood summers with her bohemian family on an island in the Porvoo archipelago, in the Gulf of Finland, her experiences reflected in her work. This extract is from her novel, 'The Summer Book'.

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The sea is very rarely so calm that a small boat with an outboard motor will venture out to The Cairn. The Cairn is the last island out in the Gulf of Finland. It takes hours to get there, and you have to take food for the entire day. The Cairn is a long skerry, and from a distance it looks like two islands, two smooth spines with a channel marker on one of them and a little beacon on the other. There is no cairn on the island at all. When you get closer, you can see that the granite spines are as sleek as seals and that there is a long thin neck of boulders between them. The boulders are perfectly round.

The sea was as smooth as oil, and so pale you could hardly tell it was blue. Grandmother sat in the middle of the boat under a violet parasol. She hated violet, but it was all they had. Moreover, it was really a pretty colour, as clear and bright as the sea itself. The parasol made them look like the worst kind of summer people, which they were not. When they reached The Cairn, they went ashore at the first spot they came to, since there was no lee side - in the calm all sides were lee. They carried their things ashore and put the butter in the shade. The granite was hot underfoot. Papa wedged the handle of the parasol into a crack - Granmother was to lie there on an air mattress and enjoy herself. She watched them set off in opposite directions; the island was so large that pretty soon they turned into little dots moving along the edge of the water. Then she crawled out from under the parasol and took her walking stick and headed off in a third direction of her own, but before she left she arranged some sweaters and bathrobes on the mattress so it would look as though she were asleep.

Grandmother came down to the shore at an interesting spot where a little canyon cut through the rock and ran out into the sea. Even now, at midday, the bottom of this canyon was in shadow - right down into the water and a long way out, like a crevice of darkness. Grandmother sat down and edged into the canyon a little at a time until at last she dropped to the bottom and was all by herself in peace and quiet. She lit a cigarette and watched the barely visible swell. By and by, the boat appeared from behind the point. Papa was making a sweep around the reef to set out his nets.

"So there you are," Sophia said. "I went swimming."

"How's the water?" Grandmother said. From the bottom of the canyon, the child was a narrow shadow against the sun, like a stick of wood.

"Pretty bloody cold," Sophia said, and jumped down into the canyon. The floor of the crevice was covered with stones, from the size of a person's head down to the size of a marble. They found a place where the granite was full of those very small Finnish garnets you find sometimes, and they tried to dig them out with a jack-knife. It didn't work. It never does. They ate hard bread and watched the boat. All the nets were out, and it sailed back and disappeared around the point.

"You know, sometimes when everything's fine, I think it's just a bloody bore," Sophia said.

"You do?" said Grandmother, taking out another cigarette. It was only her second before noon, and she always tried to smoke in secret when she could rememberto.

"Nothing happens," her grandchild explained. "I wanted to climb the channel marker and Papa said I couldn't."

"That's too bad," Grandmother said.

"No, it's not 'too bad'," Sophia said. "It's bloody stupid."

"Where did you pick that up? You keep saying 'bloody' all the time."

"I don't know. It sounds good."

"Violet's a bloody colour," Grandmother said. "Talk about 'bloody' - did I ever tell you about the dead pig I found once? We boiled the meat off for a week and it stunk to heaven. Your father wanted to have the skeleton for school. You know, for zoology."

"No," said Sophia suspiciously. "What do you mean? What school?"

"When your father was little."

"When? What pig? What did you say it was called?"

"Oh nothing," Grandmother said. "One time when your father was little, about your age."

"He's big," the child said, and started cleaning the sand out from between her toes. They each fell silent. After a while, Grandmother said, "Right now he thinks I'm asleep under that umbrella."

'The Summer Book' by Tove Jansson (Sort of Books) is available to readers of the 'Independent on Sunday' for £5.99 (rrp £6.99) including free p&p within the UK. To order, call 0870 755 2122 quoting ref BSP072. Offer ends 31 December 2003.

Follow in the footsteps

Realm of fantasy

Tove Jansson's trail stretches from Helsinki to Tampere and the Gulf of Finland. In Helsinki, there is a sculpture of the author by her father in the Kluuvi park, and two of her murals in the Arbis adult education centre at Dagmarsgatan 3. A Moomins exhibition is on display in Tampere's city library (00 358 3146 6576;, and although you can't visit her Porvoo island home, along the coast at Naantali is the Moominworld theme park (00 358 2 511 1111;

Getting there

Finnair (020-7408 1222; offers return flights to Helsinki from £105 on the internet. The Travel Experience (00 358 9 622 9810; offers b&b in a double at the Radisson SAS Hotel Plaza, Helsinki, from €96, and at the Sokos Hotel Ilves, Tampere, from €91 per night. Both prices are based on two sharing.