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I always seem to read Molly Keane for read Ireland month – she has become a firm favourite of mine anyway. I don’t care too much for the hunting stuff she writes about sometimes, but not all her novels feature much of that. I began reading Two Days in Aragon a day or two before Read Ireland month officially started – it was also another read for the LT Virago group’s ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, which had relationships as its February theme.

First published in 1941, Two Days in Aragon is set in the rural Ireland that Molly Keane is known for portraying so beautifully. It is the 1920s, and the Anglo Irish aristocratic Fox family live at Aragon. A Georgian house standing among rhododendrons and azaleas which bears testament to centuries of gracious living. As ever, Keane’s depiction of the landscape she clearly loved is gorgeous, but this novel could also be seen as a memorial for a way of life that was coming to an end. With this, there is also a recognition for the political tensions and deadly allegiances that were gathering against the Anglo Irish landed gentry in Ireland.

“Rising above the river banks and stone flights of fox-watched steps, the house had the lonely quality of bird flight.”

Their father dead, the conventionally pretty, well behaved Sylvia and her spirited younger sister Grania live here with their mother, dotty Aunt Pidgie and Nan O’Neill, once Sylvia’s nurse, she is now employed to care for Aunt Pidgie.

Grania has been spending time secretly with Foley O’Neill, Nan’s son, who while his mother lives at Aragon – lives at the family farm, with Aunt Gipsy and his cousin Donatia. Foley is a wily horse breeder, known by all the shadowy IRA men in the area. He’s been known to hide a desperate man on the run – while associating with, and happily selling horses to, the officers of the British Army – who go to tea at Aragon and play tennis with Sylvia Fox. Foley and Grania are mismatched lovers, of different classes yes, but there’s more to it than that in Ireland. He is Irish, and a catholic, she is Anglo-Irish, a protestant with allegiance to the British crown. It is the same old story, Grania has fallen in love with Foley, but he is just using her.

“The idea of passing love, was not born in her. It had not dawned on her that Foley’s love could mean only a little. She thought everything in him and of him was for her, as he was the breath of life and the only meaning of love to her, so she must be to him.”

At Aragon the household is managed by Nan, though no one but the butler; Frazer, seems to realise it. He is merely waiting for the right moment to get rid of his enemy – meanwhile he watches. Gradually we see that Nan’s treatment of Aunt Pidgie is not all it should be. Aunt Pidgie has a nail in her shoe that pierces her foot – it’s never removed, she is usually hungry, and her fragile mind is terrified of Nan, who often locks her in her room. The rest of the household are happy that there is someone who looks after poor Aunt Pidgie – and simply don’t see what should be obvious.

“Little by little Nan had achieved the ruling of Aragon. There was no coarseness or violence shown in the methods by which her opponents were weeded out. Slowly, and one by one they went, and with their going, her power over the rest tightened its grip. Everyone on the place was afraid of Nan and Nan’s influence on Mrs Fox, who was the perfect doll to be manipulated by Nan.”

Nan is obsessed with Aragon, believing she is able to claim a kinship with the family through her illegitimate birth. She is a woman who will do anything to protect the thing she loves. Nan could become one of Molly Keane’s most memorable characters for me – a truly vile individual, brilliantly created.

However, this is Ireland of the 1920s – and while the landed gentry buy horses, drink tea and play tennis, there is sedition being whispered by men who wedded to a dangerous, bloody cause. These days of an easy way of life are numbered.  British officers are stationed nearby – and their lives are pretty easy too, they enjoy a good social life and can almost forget the real reason for their presence in Ireland.

On the morning of our second day in Aragon, Grania sneaks off to ride with Foley, his young cousin falls from her horse, and Aunt Gipsy can talk of nothing but her new hat. Sylvia Fox is all set for her tennis party in the afternoon, to which the man she has fallen for; Captain Purvis and some of his brother officers are invited. As Foley rides out to fetch a nurse for his cousin, he spots a sign outside a lonely roadside inn, and knows the men of the local IRA lead by Killer Denny, wish to see him. He dare not ignore the call.

That day takes a violent, dramatic turn, which will change the lives for many of the inhabitants of Aragon and the people they care for. 

Molly Keane marries complex political realities with a story of dangerous and damaging relationships, with her usual wit, sense of place and brilliant storytelling.

February in review

If January seems to go on forever, then February is over all too quickly. It does have a half term week towards the end which is great for reading of course.

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns got the month off to a brilliant start, which I read for the Librarything Virago group’s ‘Reading the1940’s’ event – which sees us reading books published in the 1940s or about the 1940s. Most of us are reading VMC and Persephone books (or their authors) for this event. February’s theme was relationships, and Mr Fox – set during World War Two, first published in 1987 concerns the ambiguous relationship between Mr Fox and Caroline. Towards the end of the month Liz helped me acquire a longed for copy of A Touch of Mistletoe by Comyns.

My second book of February was two novellas in one by Colette; My Mother’s House and Sido (1922/1929). I later realised that I had read My Mother’s House before – a different translation with a different title. Still, it was a simply exquisite read, and reading it in my stunning new American first edition was a real treat.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton (1936) I read on my kindle – an ebook sent by the publishers Dean Street Press. A hugely compelling mystery, well written with some fantastic characterisation, I will be going in search of more by this writer soon.

What Not by Rose Macaulay (1918) another review copy (trying hard to catch up with those I have) is to be re-issued by Handheld Press at the end of March. I thoroughly enjoyed this rather satirical, dark comedy – published with the repressed material from 1918 reinstated.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson (2006) a collection of stories chosen from other books of Jansson’s and with a lovely introduction by Ali Smith. These stories are absolutely delightful, centring around childhood and old age – they feel very autobiographical.

Rule Britannia by Daphne Du Maurier (1972) was another very compelling read. Her final novel – which doesn’t seem to have been well thought of at the time but has now been seen by some as oddly prescient for our times. Du Maurier imagines a time a little in the future from when she was writing when the UK having had a divisive referendum have left the Common Market and almost bankrupt have entered into a rather sinister alliance with the US. It is naturally rather anti-American, but I have to admit to thoroughly enjoying it.

Consequences by E M Delafield (1919) is a beautifully written, though ultimately sad and rather angry novel by the creator of The Provincial Lady. Alex Clare is an awkward young woman from a traditionally upper class Victorian family – when she fails to marry as is expected of her – she starts to believe a convent is the only place for her.

The Smallest Things by Nick Duerden (2019), review copy from the publisher, is a very touching family memoir which celebrates family, showing how it is the small things in life that tie people together.

Two Days in Aragon by Molly Keane (1941) for ‘Reading the 1940s’ also allowed me to join in with Cathy’s reading Ireland month. Although written in the 1940s it is set in the 1920s. Aragon is the home of the Anglo Irish family the Foxes. Dangerous relationships, and the complex political upheaval of the 1920s made this a really fantastic read, review soon.

As the month draws to a close, I am about half way through a British Library Crime Classic, Sergeant Cluff stands Firm by Gil North (1960), it will go into next month’s pile now. A little different to some of the other BLCC I have read, but definitely enjoyable.

March is potentially going to be a little odd here in the UK – although actually no one has a single solitary clue about what is going on, and I am certainly not going to say any more about it than that. I shall, no doubt need plenty of lovely, diverting reading material.

So, while I have put aside a few things I might be reading – I am just as likely to just read what I want to.

The ‘Reading the 1940s’ event is turning out to be right up my street – the rules are so loose that is actually allows us to read quite widely and diversely – I have at least a couple of potential reads lined for our March theme which is women. The Persimmon Tree and other stories by Marjorie Barnard (1943) and Liana by Martha Gellhorn (1944) are definitely on my radar – they look fascinating, Liana will certainly take me right away from the UK and its current chaos. Another collection of stories, The Rental Heart (2014) by Kirsty Logan has been chosen by my book group. I just found out from Juliana at The Blank Garden  that there is a Welsh read-a-long, Dewithon – at the same time as Reading Ireland month hosted by Paula of Book Jotter. I may find time to read Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards (1928)– I read Rhapsody by her last year, her writing is beautiful, and I am looking forward to Winter Sonata which I think I read many years ago in another edition.  That’s quite a lot of reading plans for someone trying not to plan ahead too much. I also want to read one or two of the works in translation that I have tbr – not sure which ones I will fancy getting stuck into yet. I would like to read at least one more book for Cathy’s reading Ireland month – I have William Trevor, more Molly Keane, Kate O’Brien and Mary Lavin on my tbr – so we’ll see what I can manage.

What were your February reading highlights? Any plans for March I should know about?

Review copy from the publisher

The Smallest Things is both a memoir and a celebration of family – a family who the reader becomes quickly very fond of. Nick Duerdon writes with poignant intelligence, honesty and enormous affection. I was nearly reduced to tears on the bus!

Nick Duerdon grew up in a London high rise flat with his mother. His grandparents, his mother’s parents, lived in a suburb of Milan, Italy. They were always there. There was a language barrier which made things a bit more awkward, Nick’s Italian very limited, his grandparents speaking no English. However, they were an unchanging presence in his young life that could always be relied upon. The recipients of dutiful visits in school holidays, where carefully preserved rituals had been maintained for years.  

“At first I suffered these weekends dutifully because I was young and brash, and because time in Milan stood so tauntingly still and I didn’t. But as I aged and slowed, and as they did too, these trips out of normal life became visits to cherish, to burn into my mind’s eye for the time when the inevitable happened and they weren’t around any more.”

As Nick Duerdon entered into middle age, himself a father of two daughters, his 98 year old grandmother is reluctantly obliged to go into a care home. It is the moment in which he begins to realise that perhaps he didn’t pay enough attention to his grandmother in the past. Living in London with his Spanish wife and two young daughters, Nick sees how history is beginning to repeat itself with his girls and their Spanish grandmother.

When we’re young, we take the people around us, a little bit for granted, we forget I suppose that they won’t always be there. Families are often a mystery – and we forget sometimes to ask the important questions while there is still someone to answer them. There have been little mysteries in my own family – small things, we wonder about when we look back – why did such and such happen? why did that person suddenly go and live there? It’s frustrating to know that those questions will never be answered. One of the reasons I enjoy family memoirs so much is because families are so endlessly fascinating – and the fascination is so often in the small things, the silly squabbles, the rituals and traditions that are unique to that family, the tiny hurts and tender spots that never quite heal, and of course the mysteries.

In The Smallest Things, Nick Duerden examines the rich, poignant complexity of family life. Nick’s mum was only in her fifties when she died, his ageing Italian grandparents his last link with her. Nick’s duty visits to his grandparents continued into adulthood – short trips in the main, long weekends becoming shorter as the earlier plane home begins to be always the one booked.

“Time with my grandparents really did operate at a more gradual pace. It was a stagnant thing. Swollen with inactivity, no pressing need to maintain the urgent thrust of modern life because here life wasn’t modern at all. It had stopped with my grandfather’s retirement years earlier, and these days tock only followed tick if tock could be bothered. There were no distractions, little incident, no pressing places to be, nothing to get done.”

Visits are looked forward to, but once installed in his grandparents’ apartment, the same old routine is fallen into, beautifully cooked dishes of spaghetti for lunch and days in which the evening game of cards is the highlight. He describes the visit he took with his wife – before she was his wife – and the rare trip out in the car, they took with his grandparents. It was of course a disaster – his grandfather confused by the new roads – too stubborn to admit he didn’t know the way. The atmosphere of awkward tension is palpable, and tenderly portrayed.

Nick witnesses his grandparents ageing – never sure when he says goodbye if it’ll be the last time. The passage of time brings changes for all of us – and it is always sad when we spot the decline in others.

“The last time I had seen them together, they didn’t bother eating at the living-room table any more, deciding that it was quicker, and less fuss, simply to eat in the kitchen, both of them done with the ceremony of tradition. A significant capitulation, this, the white flag of surrender, the beginning of the end.”

With his grandmother ageing and becoming ever frailer – Nick goes in search of the secrets his late mother left behind. A family friend helps to sensitively fill in some gaps. He finds that in the end it is often the smallest of things that bind us together, when things have remained unspoken for years.

As it says on the cover; this is a memoir of tiny dramas – after all isn’t that the essence of family life? Tenderly written, and unexpectedly poignant The Smallest Things is a beautiful celebration of family life and those relationships which are the most important.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy family memoirs as I do.

Half term week always seems like a good time for a big fat Persephone book – and I had several to choose from. Consequences is one of Persephone’s rather older titles – but I only bought it last year. I think I already knew what to expect – a tone very different to the one E M Delafield is best known for in The Provincial Lady. I am embarrassed at how few Delafield I have read – she is a writer I have wanted to explore more of a long time. In Consequences we encounter Delafield’s concern with women’s place in the world, but here there are none of the wry observances I remember from her most famous work. It was in The War Workers; that I first saw the anger that Delafield is also capable of. It is clear, that in Consequences it is that same anger which fuelled her.

Delafield’s own fate was thankfully better than that of the central character in Consequences, the Great war, and her writing gave her a purpose and a direction in life that many women – whether they married or not did not feel. After the First World War, E M Delafield did marry and went on to have two children, publish lots of books and worked with the ministry of National Service, her life was full, and successful – not so the life of Alex Clare in Consequences.

The theme of this beautifully poignant novel is the fate of women of a certain class, who do not marry. Her central character is Alex – an awkward girl, who in time becomes an awkward young woman. The eldest daughter of a gracious society couple Sir Francis and Lady Isabel Clare, Alex continually finds herself at fault, is overly sensitive and easily aggrieved. It is the late nineteenth century, and Alex is a child of a traditional Victorian household, where provision will be made for the boys, the girls expected to marry. In this novel Delafield recreates upper class Victorian family life, convent school days, the anxious social whirl of a young debutante and the hard, privations of the religious life of a nun.

The novel opens with the children playing the game of consequences in the nursery – I remember playing the game at school myself – you write down a name, fold the paper over, pass it to the next person, who writes down what’s said and so the game goes on. Alex is twelve as the novel opens, she has two younger sisters and two younger brothers, all of whom are ably managed by Nanny.

Having several times incurred the wrath of her parents and been responsible for an accident involving her sister Barbara – Alex is sent to a convent school in Belgium. It seems that from here on Alex’s life is set on a path that won’t end happily. Her starry eyed infatuation over her friend Queenie Torrance, puts her at odds with the nuns, who decree that girls should not show any special preference for one over another.

“She left the misery of that black Saturday behind her, and was left with her childish nerves a little shattered, her childish confidence of outlook rather more overshadowed, her childish strength less steady, and above all, set fast in her childish mind the ineradicable, unexplained conviction that because she had loved Queenie Torrance and had been punished and rebuked for it, therefore to love was wrong.”

Alex isn’t a very likeable character, she is just as able to annoy the reader as she does the people around her, she is a product of her upbringing and environment, and is often her own worst enemy. Yet, it is still possible to feel some sympathy for this awkward young woman as she attempts to make her way in a world she doesn’t quite understand. The time comes for Alex to return home, to put her hair up and be launched upon society. Other young women are as little prepared as Alex, and yet they seem to find their way much better. Alex had expected that everything would be fine once she was grown up – everything would fall into place, she would be successful, and she would be happy.

‘It seemed to Alex that when she joined the mysterious ranks of grown-up-people everything would be different. She never doubted that with long dresses and piled-up hair, her whole personality would change, and the meaningless chaos of life reduce itself to some comprehensible solution.’

Alex comes out into society, dressed beautifully and accompanied by her mother. She attends balls and dinners, with some enthusiasm at first, but isn’t a great success. She feels what she sees as her own failure keenly, and once again she is at odds with those around her. She enjoys a brief illusory sense of success when she meets again a young man she knew slightly in childhood. Following a very brief, aborted engagement to the only man to show any interest in her – Alex is lured back to convent life by a local Mother Superior who shows her kindness. After a year, she is back in Belgium at the convent where she was once a schoolgirl.

Though even this isn’t the end of Alex’s story. Just as her engagement had once felt wrong, after nine years in a convent Alex realises, she has no vocation for the religious life – and must ask to leave – a long, difficult process, and what possible life will she have back in England?

“Alex found herself reading of emotions and experiences of which her own seemed so feeble a mockery, that she was conscious of a physical pang of sick disappointment. 
Was all fiction utterly untrue to life? Or was hers the counterfeit, which the printed pages but reproduced something of a reality which was denied to her?” 

There is a terrible inevitability to Alex’s fate – she has never learned to get along with people, is unable to empathise with them – and just as in her days of childhood she is still quick to feel other’s criticism. The reader knows even at this stage that Alex is unlikely to find her happy ending.

Despite being over 400 pages, Consequences is a fairly quick read – it is hugely compelling – and Delafield’s writing made me sit up late turning the pages – I just had to know what was next for poor Alex Clare

Tales from the tbr

I cannot lie, books have come into the house.

It might not seem like it, but I really have reduced the amount I have been buying recently. However, what with the enormous number of wonderful books I received at Christmas a handful of review copies all arriving at around the same time – my shelves are not feeling the benefit yet. My tbr stands at 258 (I am keeping my spreadsheet from last year going – it proves useful in all sorts of ways) which is about where it was for most of last year – it never really improves by much.

However, I am also attempting to rid myself of books I am unlikely to read again. My virago books, Persephones, my old out of print editions are books I cannot, will not part with, but modern mass market paperbacks, translated fiction and those books I buy for my book group – can be passed on and enjoyed by others. I am taking steps in reducing the number of those I have in the house, but it is admittedly a slow process. It was the bookcrossing meet up today – so that’s another small pile gone.

Sometimes the dogged pursuit of one particular book – finally pays off – and so it was this week – with the help of my friend, Liz. Last year I read The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, a book which made my end of year list. Certainly not the only Comyns I have read – I have now read six of her novels – but probably the one that made me decide to track down everything she had written as soon as possible. So, it was about then that I first became aware that A Touch of Mistletoe and some of Comyns other books are especially hard to track down. There is something about the knowledge that something is hard to get that only makes one want it more. Despite not having all Comyns books yet – I decided I had to buy it – I will worry about those others later. Reasonably priced copies were few and far between – absurdly priced copies would pop up every now and then, so it seemed the scarcity of even the VMC edition was driving prices up. To cut a very long story short, Liz found a copy of A Touch of Mistletoe on Amazon marketplace at such a reasonable price – we doubted it was the right book. Having already lost out on a copy – when I didn’t see a message another friend sent me in time – Liz just bought it on my behalf – and had it sent to her house. We met up for a cuppa a few days ago and I brought the book home – the condition of it is practically perfect. So, I still have three (I think) Comyns to track down – but I think I need to wait a while before I start chasing Comyns all over the internet again, it really is quite exhausting.

The other two books I bought this week are by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, Flights which has been reviewed everywhere, a challenging work I suspect but which won the International Man Booker, and the wonderfully titled Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead – which I may have bought for the title alone.

The last book which came into my house in the last few weeks is The Rental Heart and other fairytales by Kirsty Logan – chosen by my very small book group. Since buying the book, I have realised I may not be able to attend that meeting. It is probably not a book I would have acquired without my book group – it is short stories, and very slight, so I may read it anyway.  

What books have come into your house recently?

With world events becoming ever more unbelievable – for some of us – there has been a temptation to turn to certain kinds of dystopian fiction. It is surprising perhaps that Daphne Du Maurier’s final novel is being seen by some as being strangely prescient for these troubling times in the UK. While not dystopian fiction of course, Rule Britannia feels like oddly appropriate reading material for the current chaos we find ourselves in.

I’m not certain that this novel was judged very well upon its publication in 1972 – people perhaps thinking the premise rather ridiculous then. Now of course we judge the ridiculous differently all sorts of absurd situations have become perfectly credible in the last few years. Suddenly, Du Maurier’s imagined political upheavals don’t seem so very ridiculous after all.

She set her final novel in the very near future (to 1972), the country divided along similar lines to today, and imagines a new and increasingly sinister alliance with the US.

“The entry into Europe was a flop, a disaster… So what happened? A general election with the country hopelessly divided, then a referendum, and finally the Coalition Government we have today, which has seized on the idea of USUK as a drowning man clutches at a straw.”

Twenty year old Emma lives in Cornwall with her grandmother; a famous retired actress – who in her retirement has adopted a brood of six unruly boys – aged from 3 to 19. It’s a far from conventional household. There’s Andy who climbs out on to the roof to shoot arrows, Sam who cares lovingly for a pet squirrel and an injured pigeon in his bedroom. Joe the eldest, who’s calm, good sense is so often relied upon but has been crippled by his inability to read and write. Terry; the first to have been adopted is a favourite with his benefactress and the housekeeper. Colin the white blond six year old – and his constant companion, three year old Ben, a small black child who has yet to learn to speak. The boys, naturally enough, try hard to teach him all the swear words they know, with rather obvious results. Du Maurier’s characterisation is fantastic, and it is partly what makes this book so hugely readable.

Emma calls her grandmother Mad – a name she once lisped in childhood but which no one else is permitted to call her, she is simply Madam to everyone else. Dottie – Mad’s dresser for forty years is the cook housekeeper for this huge and eccentric household. Emma; frequently frustrated by this house of indulged unruly boys and has been considering going to London to join her father – Pa, a banker with some influence with the government – when she wakes one morning to find the world has gone mad. A warship lies in the harbour – within sight of the house. There’s no TV, no radio and no post, American soldiers are advancing up the beach, and one trigger happy soldier shoots a dog from a neighbouring farm. The UK – having withdrawn from Europe are facing certain bankruptcy and have entered into a partnership with the US – the country now called USUK.

“Mad wasn’t in bed. She was sitting up in her chair by the open window that overlooked the bay, field-glasses to her eyes. She was fully dressed, if such a term could be used to describe her outfit, which was a combination of Robin Hood and the uniform worn by the late lamented Mao Tse-Tung. It was certainly practical for early November on the Cornish coast, if the person wearing it was about to engage in archery or clean a locomotive. Mad was destined to do neither, so far as her grand-daughter was aware, but then you never could be sure what the day would bring.”

This tiny corner of Cornwall becomes a microcosm for the whole country – a major American base – it also feels the brunt of this equal partnership – which very soon begins to look suspiciously like a takeover. Quickly, things begin to change for the residents of this small coastal community, there are road blocks set up along the lanes surrounding Mad’s house and residents are required to show passes to the soldiers who guard them. There is a definite air of tense suspicion and Mad and some of her neighbours are not about to just roll over. However, things are destined to get infinitely worse.

As she approaches her eightieth birthday, Mad enlists the help of her bunch of wonderful lost boys, like some kind of ageing Peter Pan, driving her granddaughter wild with worry in the process. A sudden shocking death brings a whole new level of seriousness to proceedings. Mad is desperate to protect her household, no matter what. With a local farmer, a Welsh beachcomber who lives in the woods, and her doctor as additional support Mad sets out to make things as difficult as possible for the Americans in their midst.

“There’s an expression for it, Emma thought, they call it snowballing. Someone starts something, and it gathers impetus, and more join in, and then there’s an avalanche, and people or property or causes are destroyed.”

This novel is marvellously compelling, Du Maurier’s last novel is a little anti-American I suppose – I wonder how American readers viewed it? – but her storytelling is as good as ever, and she does poke a little gentle fun at the Royal family along the way. I loved Mad and her boys plotting insurrection and rebellion. Du Maurier recreates the arrogant, swagger of the occupier and the divisions created in a community as some side with the occupier while others work to thwart them. It is a novel which is immediately hard to put down, and I devoured quite quickly.

Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.