Fair Play

My most recent review is of Tove Jansson’s Fair Play a lovely collection of semi-autobiographical vignettes about two aging artist-companions living on an island off the coast of Finland. One can easily draw links between the stories about Jonna and Mari to Jansson and her own partner, Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived, worked, and traveled for the better part of her adult life. However, the relationship portrayed in the book transcends direct corelation and more broadly–and beautifully–speaks to the tenuous balance of creating art and building a meaningful, lifelong relationship with another person.

Fair Play, like True Deceiver, which I reviewed last year, is a difficult book to write about. If this seems to imply that it is a “difficult read” or in any way not enjoyable–it doesn’t. Rather, Fair Play is truly lovely–a vibrant, enjoyable reading experience for Jansson’s clear and elegant prose and her subtly perceptive observations. But it is much more complex and rich than might immediately come across after you first finish the book. As Ali Smith discusses in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson’s work can be characterized by its “mysterious transparency.” Moreover, some of the most profound moments in the book take place in the spaces between conversation and revelation–in what goes unsaid. To quote Ali Smith again:

A lot isn’t said. “Don’t tell me things I already know,” one says to the other amiably. There’s a lot that doesn’t need to be said out loud. It’s a novel with a profound sense of discretion at its core. But the flip side of silence is voice, and the flip side of nothing much happening, as always with Jansson, is that absolutely everything is happening.

The other element that is worth drawing attention to is Thomas Teal’s absolutely seamless translation. Smith again:

The “blend of perfectionism and nonchalance” that Mari sees in Jonna is apparent all through Jansson’s own writing style–perfectly caught itself by Thomas Teal, a luminous translator of Jansson’s twin talent for surface and depth, simplicity and reverberation in language, and someone who knows how to convey her gift for sensing the meaning in the most mundane act or turn of phrase.

In summation, Jansson’s novels have been some of my most valued reading experiences over the last couple of years. We’re lucky that NYRB has made a mission of translating her previously unavailable “adult” novels. I’ve yet to read her Summer Book–although it’s been on my bookshelf since several Christmases ago–and if anything, Fair Play has made me look forward to dipping into that previous novel when the weather finally turns warm again.

My review of Fair Play was published on Three Percent. You can read it on their website, or see the full text below.

***

“There is no silence like sitting in a fog at sea and listening,” writes Tove Jansson in her newly-translated story collection Fair Play. “Large boats can loom up suddenly, and you don’t hear the bow water in time to start your motor and get out of the way.” Stuck waiting out a dense, chilling fog in a row boat somewhere between the coast of a small Finnish island and Estonia, Jansson’s aging companions, Jonna and Mari, fall into an old argument about their mothers—one had an annoying predilection for painstakingly buttered crispbread; the other was an incorrigible cheat at poker. Their conversation is short—discreetly hurtful in the way that one only can be after years of intimacy. But before the fog lifts, Jonna and Mari have come to an understanding, if not a full reconciliation. “Suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia,” Jansson writes. “They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

This episode is not only emblematic of Jonna and Mari’s time-tested relationship, it also reveals Jansson at her paradoxical best. Her prose is sparing and exquisitely clear. And at first, her stories and characters appear to be simple and straightforward. But once you’ve immersed yourself in a Jansson story, you realize that there is a great complexity simmering under the surface of her work—a whole life that exists, but is not made readily accessible to the reader. As Ali Smith puts it in her excellent introduction to Fair Play, Jansson writes “in a language so tightly edited that its clarity makes for mysterious transparency.”

Tove Jansson is most often recognized as a children’s author and illustrator—the visionary behind those delightful marshmallow hippos called “Moomins.” Her adult novels, which she didn’t begin publishing until she was nearly 60, have until recently remained very much in the shadow of the Moomin legacy. Fair Play is the most recent of Jansson’s ‘adult’ novels that New York Review Books has brought into English translation, following last year’s True Deceiver and 2008’s The Summer Book. The collection picks up two of the major thematic elements that run through each of its predecessors, namely the relationship between two women, explored against the back drop of a remote, idyllic setting. (True Deceiver was set in a snow-bound mountain village; The Summer Book on a small island in the Finnish gulf.) And as with the previous NYRB titles, Fair Play also draws on autobiographical inspiration: in this case, Jansson’s lifelong relationship with her partner, a Finnish artist and scholar named Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she lived for the better part of 40 years.

Each chapter in Fair Play serves as a snapshot, a brief window into the relationship between the frank and opinionated Jonna and the reserved and introspective Mari. Their day-to-day lives are quiet and happily mundane: they watch Fassbinder movies instead of going to dinner at a friend’s in the evening (with all its “pointless chatter about inessentials”). They re-hang pictures. They travel frequently, though their points of destination are often less than glamorous. On one trip through the American southwest, they spend a few nights at a local bar in Phoenix, Arizona; while in Corsica, one of their main destinations is a cemetery. They bicker frequently, and aren’t above childish jealousy or the occasional resentment. But mostly, they work, comfortable enough with the constancy of the other’s presence and support to spend the majority of their days writing and painting alone.

In “Videomania,” we’re told that Jonna and Mari “. . . lived at opposite ends of a large apartment building near the harbor, and between their studios lay the attic, an impersonal no-man’s-land of tall corridors with locked plank doors on either side.”

Mari liked wandering across the attic; it drew a necessary, neutral interval between their domains . . . They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected—those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.

It’s in the couple’s companionable solitude that Jansson defines her ethos of artistic creation, a deeply felt belief about the importance of maintaining one’s personal life without sacrificing her creative work, and the substantial space that is required to successfully balance both spheres.

Despite the quietude of Fair Play, it is nevertheless a work of remarkable courage. Jansson’s is not the flashy sort of artistic boldness that proclaims itself by way of constant transparency and self-revelation. Rather, she is brave enough to occasionally withhold information, to provide confidential glimpses into her characters’ lives, while still maintaining a distance from them—a sort of respectful privacy. She doesn’t outline the women’s romantic lives—we don’t find them in bed together, or even see them embrace. Jonna and Mari don’t articulate their love for each other directly, although they certainly reflect on their feelings internally.

Fair Play is after all, a book about separation and space as much as it is about intimacy. “We need distance,” Jonna tells Mari, “it’s essential.” The reader is allowed a closeness to these remarkable women, but in the end, their relationship is like any one in real life: private and fully known only to those who are within it.

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Purge Review on Powell’s

Although I recently reviewed Purge for The L Magazine, I also had the opportunity to write an extended piece on the book (with a slightly different focus) for the website Three Percent (here). I am delighted to say that shortly after the review was posted, I was invited by The National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a member) to have the review featured as one of the Reviews-of-the-Day on the Powell’s Books website.

Even if you don’t live in the Northwest, you may be familiar with Powell’s–it’s a gigantic, used and new bookstore with an absolutely wonderful and extensive collection. I’ve reaped the benefits of the Powell’s bounty both when ordering hard-to-find children’s books for library classes, and when a friend scoured the store stacks on a recent trip and brought me back a copy of Sebastian Japrisot’s The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, a sadly out-of-print French crime novel that I had been searching high and low for all over New York.

Anyway, it’s a huge honor to be selected for this by the NBCC (a group with discriminating standards) and also to be featured on the Powell’s website–especially for a book which was really a very memorable and important reading experience for me. I’ve posted the full text of the review below, or you can read it on Three Percent (link above) or, hey–go to Powell’s and check it out. Buy a book while you’re there–they have free shipping!

***

Although still much an unknown in the English-speaking world, Finnish-Estonian playwright, novelist, and activist Sofi Oksanen has become something of a household name in northern and central Europe. Declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year” in 2009, Oksanen is the first to win both of Finland’s prestigious literary prizes — the Finlandia and the Runeberg — as well as winning this year’s Nordic Council Literature Prize for her virtuosic novel Purge. At once a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, as well as a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual, Purge navigates the tragedies, petty betrayals, and reverberating guilt of three generations of Estonian women, all struggling to survive their own violent circumstances, no matter the cost.

The novel opens in 1991 — the year after Estonia reclaimed its independence from Russia — with the elderly and isolated Aliide Truu stoically weathering childish torments (rocks thrown at her window) and more aggressive harassment (her dog poisoned) at the hands of her neighbors. One rainy morning, Aliide notices an injured young girl huddling in her front yard, and despite her misgivings, allows the girl to take shelter in her home. Zara is a young woman from Russia — a sex trafficking victim on the run from her captors. Having withstood a year of degradation and repeated assaults, Zara has lost everything. Everything, that is, except a yellowed photograph of her grandmother and her grandmother’s sister, with both young women and standing in front of the very Estonian house in which Zara has taken refuge.

Oksanen originally staged Purge as a play, an origin that can still be recognized in its episodic scenes and deliberately moderated tension. In its current form, however, the novel’s fluid and unadorned prose (in a musical and nuanced translation by Lola Rogers) shares a closer kinship with a psychological thriller. Both Aliide and Zara are survivors in the truest sense of the word — their suffering purposefully repressed by sheer force of will, their sole motivation to protect themselves from further harm. And they are both connected by a dense and untold family history that has festered for over four decades.

As the novel delves into Aliide’s past and the thirty-odd years that Estonia spent under Soviet occupation, it becomes apparent that the events of the present have all spun out from the same traumatic incident — a brutal “interrogation” that Aliide endured at the hands of several soldiers. Rape and assault were frighteningly common experiences for young Estonian women during this time, although not ones which were ever acknowledged — even by others who had gone through similar attacks. Rather, these women became isolated within their own communities and families, silent and ashamed. Aliide not only goes to great lengths to secret her experience, but also to distance herself from other victims. “She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said something similar happened to them,” we’re told.

From every trembling hand, she could tell — there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye . . .

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice similarities in their behavior . . . because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s . . . And they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from flinching at the same time, if they heard a familiar voice. They wouldn’t be able to raise their glass without spilling. They would be discovered. Someone would know.

Even as Aliide’s attempts at self-preservation become increasingly damaging to those around her — even as she allows herself to become complicit in the violations, abuses, and deportations that take place in her own home — the novel still treats her with a great depth of empathy. This is not to say that she is absolved of her actions — much to the contrary. But she is understood to be a casualty of her time and circumstances, and utterly alone with her memories and her guilt. As she realizes late in the novel, her whole life was spent “[w]aiting for someone . . . Someone who would do something to help or at least take away part of what had happened in that cellar.”

Stroke her hair and say that it wasn’t her fault. And say that it would never happen again, no matter what. And when she realized what she had been waiting for, she understood that that person would never come. No one would ever come to her and say those words, and mean them, and see that it never happened again.

There can be no real absolution for Aliide. This fact may be difficult for American readers, who have perhaps become accustomed to narratives of trauma and emotional distress which end in redemption — in the characters achieving some sort of closure, if not an out and out resolution to their suffering. In reality, however, true healing is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and impossible, the novel reminds us, if the victims involved are not able to discuss their experiences.

Where Purge does take hope, however, is in Zara, a young woman who has broken free of the cycle of victimization. Through her, Aliide’s experiences — as well as those of her grandmother and mother — will finally come to light. It is a painful history to be sure, as is that of the Estonian nation. But in order to move forward — in order to truly reconcile with the past — such stories must finally be heard and examined.

Purge

My most recent review is of the new English translation of Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen’s Purge. I saw Ms. Oksanen speak at the recent PEN festival, and not only is she an eloquent speaker, she is also able–quite elegantly–to take topics and historical subject matter that is perhaps unfamiliar to her audience (such as the Soviet occupation of Estonia) and make them seem accessible and relevant in a broader context.

This is certainly a knack which she utilized in Purge, but also one which seems to have characterized her previous work. For example, she talked about one of her previous novels, Stalin’s Cows, which deals not only Soviet history, but also the topic of eating disorders. One of her goals, she said, was to create a book in which both of these topics could be brought to readers who might not ordinarily come across them. As she said, she wanted younger girls with an interest in eating disorders to gain an understanding of recent historical events, and older men with an interest in history to gain insight into eating disorders.

In regards to Purge, Oksanen discussed a number of interesting elements, not the least the fact that she drew inspiration for the story from events she heard her grandparents discussing while visiting them in Estonia during her childhood summers. Additionally, the story has gone through many iterations, and Oksanen not only experimented with telling it from different points of view, but also initially wrote it as a play, which was staged in Finland several years ago.

Purge is a difficult novel, but entirely compelling and beautifully, engagingly written. The translation, by Lola Rogers, is fluid and lyrical, and reads quite naturally. My review was published for The L and can be read on their website, or the full text is below.

***

In 2009, Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen was declared Estonia’s “Person of the Year”in recognition of her virtuosic novel Purge. The novel—whose Finnish title also connotes “cleansing—is a daring exploration of the Soviet occupation of Estonia and a wrenching consideration of the irrevocable effects of trauma on an individual. Through her inscrutable protagonist Aliide Truu, Oksanen creates a perceptive portrait of the limitations of the healing process and the consequences that abuse can have not only on a victim, but on those around her.

Having always lived in rural Estonia, elderly Aliide has weathered multiple occupations—two under Soviet regimes, and one under Nazi Germany. After a brutal “interrogation”by Soviet soldiers in her youth, Aliide is determined to prevent a repeat assault. In an effort to protect herself, however, she becomes complicit in the victimization of other women—even her sister and niece. Like the anonymous diarist of A Woman in Berlin, Aliide seeks safety with her assailants, going so far as to marry a prominent soldier. “No one would believe that a woman could go through something like that and then marry a Communist,”she reasons.” And that was important—that no one would ever know.

It is this oppressive silence which comes to define Purge and strikes at the prolonged anguish felt by so many of its characters. In fluid and unadorned prose (beautifully translated by Lola Rogers), Oksanen gives poetic shape to unspeakable violence and illuminates the devastating process of remembering. It’s a compelling, difficult, and ultimately impossible resolution. Because as Oksanen herself has noted, it is only after one can speak about trauma that one can heal from it.

For Americans who are accustomed to exploring their most intimate sufferings in public, the burden of silence may not immediately resonate. But for Estonians, who only regained independence from Russia in 1991, surely the unabashed eloquence of Oksanen’s narrative marks an important step toward reconciliation with a past that has been silenced for too long.

Mark Your Calendars: A Preliminary PEN Festival Schedule


As I’m sure all of you know and are currently marking your calendars for, the PEN World Voice Festival starts this week, on Monday, April 26th. Luckily for me (since I still have evening classes on Monday and Tuesday until next week), things don’t really get started until Wednesday. There are well over 50 events, so I will hardly try to draw your attention to all of the ones that look interesting and worthwhile. But here are some highlighted readings and panels that I am going to do my best to get to–let me know if you’ll be there! (Also–just an observation, but it seems like there are more ticketed events this year than there were in years previous. Has anyone else noticed this?)

Thursday, April 29

5:30 – 6:30 PM: That’s Not What I Meant!

Swiss author Peter Stamm and the poet who translates his work, Michael Hoffman, talk about the challenges of translation.

7:00 – 8:30 PM: A Gathering of Voices

Conveniently located in the same place as the translation panel, this event features children’s authors David Almond (whose book Skellig I’m going to try very hard to read before Thursday), Janne Teller (whose book Nothing I will also try very hard to read before Thursday), Francisco X. Stork (whose book Marcelo and the Real World I have luckily already read and therefore won’t be in a pinch to read in three days–thanks, Leigh!), and Ed Young. All four authors will discuss their books and their own cultural influences.

Friday, April 30

1:00 – 2:00 PM: The Poetry of Edward Hopper

So I’ll be going to a lunch time event on Friday, although there are several that look interesting, so I’m not sure which one will win out. This event features Catalan poet Ernest Farres, who recently wrote a book of poems based on the paintings of one of my all time favorite painters.


1:00 – 2:30 PM: Incognito: Writers and their Aliases

I actually don’t know the work of any of the panelists, but it’s a very interesting topic for discussion–the importance and/or benefits of remaining anonymous as an author.

3:30 – 4:30 PM: Quim Monzo in Conversation with Robert Coover

Catalan author Quim Monzo’s book Gasoline has recently been released by Open Letter Press, and not only does the novel sound really interesting, Monzo is also an accomplished translator himself. (His credits include J.D. Salinger, Dorothy Parker, and Ray Bradbury.) Sure to be a very good discussion.

5:00 – 6:00 PM: David Almond and Sofi Oksanen in Conversation with Rakesh Satyal

This one I have to attend. Sofi Oksanen–whose haunting book Purge just won the Nordic Prize for Literature (and which I’ll be reviewing shortly)–talks with David Almond about the benefits of writing young characters, particularly when writing about traumatic events. 

8:00 – 9:30 PM: The Translation Slam (Ticketed Event)

An on-the-spot translator’s ‘duel.’ Participants this year will spontaneously translate from German and Hebrew.

Saturday, May 1 (Derby Day!)

1:00 – 3:00 PM: New European Fiction (Ticketed Event)

Readings and discussions based on the recent release of the first installment of the Best European Fiction series.

1:00 – 2:00 PM (Note Major Time Change): Patti Smith and Jonathan Lethem in Conversation (Ticketed Event)

I’m not sure if I will actually be able to handle listening to these two (equally respectable, but equally ego-endowed) artists try and talk around one another. But hey, it’s Patti. And my neighbor. So, you know, maybe. I’m sure that this will be one straight hour of awesome and ridiculous things being said with straight faces.

Sunday, May 2

2:30 – 4:00: Two Worlds (Ticketed Event)

Authors who now live in the US, but who were born in other countries, talk about the influence of American fiction in their own writing, as well as the differences between trends in contemporary American Fiction and that of their native countries.

5:00 – 6:30 PM: Black Sheep & Exploding Turbans

In the wake of the publication of a series of satirical cartoons about the prophet Mohammed in Denmark, several European authors come together to discuss Europe’s struggle to reconcile with its growing Muslim minority community.

6:30 – 8:00 PM: Sherman Alexie: The 6th Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture

Alexie will be giving a speech entitled “I, writer: The artistic, political and economic responsibilities of writers in the digital age,” which will certainly be worth attending. Alexie is interesting both as an author for teens and adults, and his take on what it means to be a writer as the landscape of the publishing and literary world changes should be engaging on many levels.





Nordic Council Literature Prize Awarded to Sofi Oksanen

Finnish author Sofi Oksanen (who has an awesome author photo) has been awarded the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for 2010. Ms. Oksanen will be one of the authors at the PEN World Voices Festival, and will be participating in three events, including one “conversation” with author David Almond (whose book Skellig, which won the Whitbread award, has been on my YA reading list for awhile).

So mark your calendars!

And, by the by, Oksanen’s book, Purge, for which she won the prize, is about to be available in English.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa

Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a beautifully illustrated collection of Finnish fables and folktales. The folktales were adapted from a preexisting translation, which is perhaps not ideal, but the collection itself is really quite fun. The review was originally published on the fantastic Three Percent website, and the full text is below.

***

It’s a frequently-cited notion that fairy tales and folk stories provide children with a sort of moral or educational compass. Don’t stray from the path. Don’t talk to strangers. Work hard and be honest. Don’t trust your stepmother. But while we may generally associate this literary form with children, it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with adult audiences. As the German poet Friedrich Schiller has been quoted as saying, “[d]eeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in any truth that is taught in life.”

Tales from a Finnish Tupa, recently reissued in a lovely illustrated edition by The University of Minnesota Press, will certainly resonate with contemporary readers for its humorous anecdotes which value enchantment and practicality in equal measure. The collection, which includes over forty “Tales of Magic,” “Droll Stories,” and fables, reverberates with themes of kindness to those in need, self-sufficiency, and common sense—as well as frequent encouragements to take advantage of anyone who does not exhibit the aforementioned qualities.

In “The Ship that Sailed by Land and Sea,” a young chimney sweep accomplishes impossible feats and wins a princess’ hand in marriage—but only with the help of the many magical strangers who he helped while on his journey. (As in many folkloric traditions, there are, apparently, simply dozens of unwed princesses just waiting for a resourceful fellow to come along and free them from the evil spells that bind them or sweep them away from persnickety fathers.) “The End of the World,” will be familiar to those who grew up with “Henny Penny,” telling the story of a foolish brown hen who thinks the world is ending after she’s hit on the head with an acorn.

The importance of a strong work ethic and judiciousness comes across most clearly in the humorous tale of “The Wise Men of Holmola,” which introduces the residents of a village who are “quite different from the rest of the people in Finland, and rather queer in their ways.” The Holmolaiset, we’re told,

. . . were simple-minded and above all cautious. They liked to turn everything over very thoroughly in their minds before they came to any decision about it, and would make the most elaborate plans about even the simplest details of their daily life. When it came to any important question they would talk it over for weeks and months and even years, before they could make up their minds to act.

Egged on by a bemused stranger named Matti, the villagers allow their crops to go to waste and accidentally demolish their homes through their own foolish dithering. Their absurd demise serves as a humorous caution to those who would over-complicate even the most basic tasks.

Beyond considering the stories themselves, however, the collaborative authorship of this collection does need to be taken into account. There’s a fair amount of distance here from the original text: Tales from a Finnish Tupa is a reprint of an adaptation of a translation. The stories were translated by Aili Kolehmainen, for whom no biographical information is provided. (If Google can be trusted, though, Kolehmainen was also responsible for a prose translation of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala in 1950.) The translation was then co-adapted by James Cloyd Bowman, a children’s book author who was awarded the Newberry Honor Medal in 1938 for Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of All Time, and Margery Bianco, the author best known for The Velveteen Rabbit.

This adaptive approach is not problematic in itself—folk tales are part of a long oral tradition in which each new storyteller augments, edits, and personalizes familiar stories to suit his or her own preferences. However, without any contextual supplements—such as a scholarly introduction about Finnish literary traditions or information about how the stories in the collection came to be included—Tales from a Finnish Tupa feels somewhat isolated from its original material and fails to resonate as fully as it might otherwise.

Bowman’s brief Afterword on Finnish folk lore serves this purpose rather poorly, opting for generalizations about “a pastoral people” who, “[o]n the surface . . . were cold and inexpressive, and seemed as frozen over as their lakes in winter.” Given the lack of ready information (in English) about Finnish literature, and moreover, the scarcity of new Finnish translations, the omission of a more nuanced examination of the text is felt all the more acutely.

Tales from a Finnish Tupa nevertheless remains a welcome addition to the cannon of international folklore, a fanciful collection which might best be shared out loud on a cold winter’s night.

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.

***

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.”