Monday, May 17, 2010

The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

As part of their celebration of small press publishers the Spotlight Series blog invited people to review books published by the New York Review of Books. The NYRB is one of the best periodicals and we look forward to renewing our subscription when we return to New Hampshire.

In keeping with my Fenno-centric blog I chose to review The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson.

TheTrue Deceiver, sets the stage for a tale of deception, but who is the deceiver? Is it Katri Kling, the bitter loner who cares for no one but her brother Mats? Or is it Anna Aemelin, the elderly children's book illustrator living alone among her parents’ faded possessions?

Set in a snowy Swedish village the novel follows the psychological struggle between two lonely, alienated women. Initially it is Katri, seeking financial security, who reaches out to Anna, the potential pawn. Katri is respected in the village for her problem-solving skills, but is also feared and ostracized. The children call her witch and pelt snowballs at her window.

Anna, like Katri, is not part of village life. She lives alone in the faded grandeur of her parents’ summer house, an eternal child. Her painstaking illustrations of the mossy ground are populated with fanciful bunnies that provide a comfortable income. The house, known as the rabbit house, sits on a hill overlooking the village in solitary splendor.

The novel opens with Katri’s attempts to insinuate herself into Anna’s life. Katri fakes a burglary at Anna’s house to secure her position as indispensable protector. But Anna is not as defenseless as a woman who draws flowery bunnies would appear and Katri finds that she also can be a victim of deception.

Deception and self-deception are important themes in the novel. The adage “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind as the veils fall away from the eyes of both women and they are left to confront the truth about their lives.

I chose this book for review because I am living in Finland. Tove Jansson is one of the best known Finnish authors. Jansson is famous for her childrens’ books about Moomintroll and his family and friends. These beloved characters survive today on clothing and in amusement parks as well as in print. A new Moomin movie premiered at Cannes last week.

It is tempting to see Jansson in Anna. Jansson started writing adult fiction in her sixties. The intense popularity of the lovable Moomins eclipsed Jansson’s talent as an artist and this was frustrating for her. Like Anna, Jansson spent an enormous amount of time answering fan mail from young readers. Anna’s struggle with Katri over the unanswered fan letters is telling. It is both a gift and a threat to find someone capable of forging your signature or assuming your voice in order to complete tiresome chores like answering the mail or negotiating royalties.

I highly recommend this book. The reader gets to observe and enjoy the dance between Katri and Anna. The story of their relationship explores what it means to live in community and whether the solitary life is easier than interacting with your fellow humans.

If you want to read more about Tove Jansson I recommend this beautiful web site that will introduce you to her paintings as well as her books.


  1. I don't think I've read anything from a Finnish author. I'll have to look this one up. It sounds interesting.

    Thanks for participating!

  2. I have also written a review of the book Purge by Sofi Oksanen. I will post it soon. It was just released last month in the U.S. Tove Jansson is fantastic. If you have kids you will all enjoy the Moomins.

  3. I remember the Moomintrolls so well from my childhood - I loved the stories. This book caught my eye when browsing the NYRB catalogue but it isn't available here unfortunately.

  4. The UK version of this book is published by Sort Of Books.

    I hope that helps!