my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

November 30th, 2010

#53 – The True Deceiver

Trying to read more books published by NYRB remains one of the never-ending “should-do’s” on my reading life. I admire just about everything about the publishers: the packages they create, the books they choose to publish, the authors they choose, and the quality of the writing. Yet, I never seem to get around to reading, well, ANY of them. So, I was pleased when our book club, The Vicious Circle, picked Tove Jansson’s The True Believer as a monthly pick.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, and she was an illustrator as well as an author. She grew up spending the summers on the Gulf of Finland, in a small fishing cabin, and the setting of The True Deceiver seems absolutely informed by the time she spent in that kind of an environment. The setting is stark, snow-filled, cold, and austere. The novel opens, “It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.” The darkness isn’t frightening, it’s not meant to create the Let the Right One In kind of environment, it’s a fact of life, a season to get through — life still goes on, groceries need to be delivered, dogs need to be walked, boats need to built. I like how Jansson creates the setting, it informs and layers the story but it doesn’t overwhelm the novel.

The story revolves around two women who live in the small village. A strange, awkward girl named Katri Kling who lives above the general store with her brother, Mats (whom everyone thinks is simple but is truly just quiet and introverted). And Anna Aemelin, a relatively wealthy (as compared to the people in the rest of the village) children’s artist who is a bit of a recluse. From the beginning of the novel Katri has a plan — she wants to gain an “in” with Anna, she has a very specific, calculated plan to ingratiate herself into her life, and nothing will stop her from getting her way. The entire village thinks the girl is strange. She has a gift with numbers and with honesty, and so many people come to her for problems: is so-and-so cheating on me, was I charged too much by the grocer, is blah-de-blah taking advantage — the villagers are ashamed to ask for Katri’s help but they continually do it. With this premise, she begins to be helpful to Anna. There’s just one difference, Anna didn’t ask for Katri’s help, and doesn’t necessarily want it. She lives in her own kind of blissful ignorance, like the dark of winter, Anna closes herself up in her house, illustrates her woodland characters, idealizes the childish way she has of creating a world in the undergrowth of the forest, and wishes she could do it differently, but change isn’t something that comes naturally to Anna.

Eventually, Katri and her brother move in with Anna, into her house. Gossip starts. But as with anyone who sets out with a plan, things go astray. And the spareness, the sparsity of Jansson’s prose nicely echoes the setting. Her words are cruel when they need to be, sparingly kind in places, but always clean, if that makes any sense — she’s an incredibly clean, crisp writer, she sort of writes like the snow itself, cold, but melts when the temperature reaches a certain point. The title refers, naturally, to Katri, but it’s also pointedly about Anna, as well — deception when it comes to yourself, deception concerning another person, they are both themes that run from beginning to end. What’s simple doesn’t always seem so, and telling the truth, and then recognizing the truth about yourself, both happen to these characters by the end. Overall, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, I read it quickly, in every spare moment I had, and I do have them these days, not necessarily to write long blog posts, but to read at 2 AM when the RRBB is breastfeeding. It’s very easy to balance a book on The Breast Friend, let me tell you, as long as it’s a teeny paperback. I’m having a little more trouble with my giant hardcover copy of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell.

Also, Jansson was born in Finland, which means I can use this book for the Around the World in 52 Days challenge I do every year. I am sure I have managed about six weeks in total, but, still, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Finnish author before. And I am sure I would read more of her books in a heartbeat considering how much I loved this one.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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