The True Deceiver

The New York Review of Books recently published a translation of Tove Jannsson’s The True Deceiver, which I reviewed for The L Magazine. (Review here.) Although I’ve had a copy of Jansson’s The Summer Book (also published by NYRB) on my to-have-read list for some time, my only real familiarity with her work is, of course, her Moomin books. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a great review of The True Deceiver for The Guardian. She really gets at the connection between Jansson’s adult fiction and work for children. I highly recommend her review, which can be read here.

The full text for my own review is below.

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Although Finnish author Tove Jansson is best known as the creator of the “Moomin” characters—a family of comic-strip trolls resembling marshmallow hippos—she also wrote well-respected adult novels. Appropriate for the dark days of winter, Jansson’s The True Deceiver is a foreboding tale of conflicting egos and misapprehension which ultimately suggests that all human relationships must necessarily be built on some measure of (self-) deception.

The novel opens on a young woman named Katri Kling in an isolated, snowbound village. “Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness,” Katri muses. “[Y]ou’re screened from everything… You wait and hide like a tree.” Both entrenched in village affairs and separated from them, so Katri has hidden for years. Unflinchingly honest, she reviles “flattery [and] empty adjectives, the whole sloppy disgusting machinery that people engage in with impunity all the time everywhere to help them get what they want…” But despite her candor, Katri protects her own furtive motive: to situate herself and her beloved younger brother in the home of Anna Aemelin, an elderly (and wealthy) children’s illustrator.

Gaining Anna’s trust through dubious means, Katri becomes a domineering housemate: she orders Anna’s groceries, cleans out her attic and takes over her finances. But despite obliging Anna’s “uncommon ability to forget unpleasant things,” it becomes clear that she is no victim. A power struggle follows, both women fighting to disrupt the other’s sincerest convictions.

The novel’s mounting tension relies on Jansson’s taut prose. Hopping among perspectives and alternating between passages of frenetic rambling and monosyllabic dialogue, Jansson encapsulates both women’s troubled self-realizations and the weight of the season. But as the winter wanes, so does the animosity. With spring approaching, the women come to a sort of strained acceptance. “Are you trying to be nice to me?” Anna asks after an unexpected confession. “Now you’re suspicious,” Katri replies. “But there’s one thing you can believe. I never try to be nice.”

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