Quiet Splendour: ‘The True Deceiver’ by Tove Jansson (1982)

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When England gets dreary and grey, it’s always tempting to move my reading north, where winter is winter and the snow is deep and evocative.  You would think that ‘The True Deceiver’ would be an obvious choice, set during the dark months in an isolated Finnish village.  I must admit though, I approach Tove Jansson’s adult novels with trepidation.  I was brought up on her wonderful Moonin books (read to me by my father), and ‘A Winter Book’ was one of my mother’s top reads of a couple of years ago.  I don’t think I could ever admit to not loving one of her novels and the weight of expectations nearly put me off.

I’m pleased it didn’t.  ‘The True Deceiver’ is a perfect read for this time of year: cold, claustrophobic and dealing with (a seasonal favourite) forcefully repressed emotions.   There is irony from the weather as the blinding whiteness of the snow contrasts with the dark days and minimal sunlight.  There is irony from the setting, the village boat-building industry is juxtaposed with the isolation and lack of transport between locations in the novel.  Then there are the characters themselves, all positioned on a spectrum from self-effacing social compromise to almost sociopathic integrity and honesty.  Oh, it’s also a great story – it stands alone without any deep analysis, but the fact that it can withstand such scrutiny is a measure of Jansson’s skill.

The ‘True Deceiver’ of the title is the obsessively honest and highly unsympathetic Katri.  She’s the kind of protagonist who refuses to give their dog a name because of the sentimental anthropomorphism this would suggest.  She’s also an under-utilised resource in her small insular community, a mathematical and legal savant who should be out there, cold-heartedly making millions, rather than living in poverty with her odd, obsessive younger brother.  She does help out her neighbours, offering free legal and economic advice, ‘but people’s sessions with Katri were often followed by an odd sense of shame, which was hard to understand, since she was always fair.’  As a village matriarch says, ‘She puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back.  You’re different.’  One source of the problem is Katri’s ‘assumption that every household was naturally hostile towards its neighbours.’  As you may expect, she shares this belief with those who seek her help and, by articulating their aggression, she somehow reinforces it, fixing it as village fact rather than sub-conscious suspicion.

The action of the novel comes with Katri’s decision to target a wealthy and fearful outsider in the community.  As a recluse, Anna Aemelin is unaware of the interloper’s reputation, but it doesn’t take her long to take advantage of Katri’s ‘help.’  The power of the story does not come from this set-up however, but from the relationship between the two women.  It soon becomes apparent that the drama is not going to emerge from any economic scam, but from the intense and ever-tightening links between the protagonists.

With unsentimental clarity, Jansson’s novel explores selfishness and dependence, talent and integrity.  It’s not a cosy book book to cuddle up with by the fire, but a powerful winter read and one that more than lives up to my fearful expectations.  In fact, reading ‘The True Deceiver’ has even made me feel brave enough to contemplate trying ‘A Winter Book’ before spring sets in.  If it’s anything like as good, then I won’t have to face the shame of telling my mother that I disagree with her taste in novels.  Like Katri, I find it very hard to lie about books; fortunately, I can recommend ‘The True Deceiver’ without any internal compromise.  Happy winter everybody!

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20 Responses to Quiet Splendour: ‘The True Deceiver’ by Tove Jansson (1982)

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Isn’t she wonderfully understated, elegant and yet so deep? Pleased you enjoyed it. I completely agree with your mother!

  2. Sarah says:

    ‘Quiet Splendour’ – what a magnificent way to describe this wonderful book. This was the first of Jansson’s adult novels I read, and didn’t know quite what to expect also having grown up with the magic of ‘The Moomins’. I was shocked by the novel’s power, and while I already loved her as a writer, I was quite dazzled by the stark unflinching beauty of her prose.

    • It’s a genuinely dazzling book and as far from the cozy atmosphere of my Moomin memories as it’s possible to get (in a good way). I agree, it’s also shocking and the relationship and characters continually take you to unexpected and very dark places.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Lovely review! This is one of the Janssons I’ve yet to read though I’ve loved her others. “A Winter Book” is fabulous, though it’s worth noting it does draw from other collections and so if you’re as obsessive as I am with tracking down everything you can get by her, you *will* end up with duplications! 🙂

    • Thank you for the warning – I’m not yet at the duplication stage but it’s good to be aware. Frankly, at my current level of Jansson fandom I’m going in with a ‘the more the merrier’ frame of mind!

  4. I adore Jansson – so glad you liked this 🙂 I hope you enjoy discovering more of her writing!

  5. Like you, I have a nervousness about her adult novels, from a childhood Moomin obsession which has continued into adulthood, where I have found many more Moomin books than I knew existed when I was Moomin aged. So I must, it seems try harder with Tove for adults

    • From personal experience I’d recommend starting with ‘The True Deceiver’! Like you though, I may be going back to the children’s books before trying many more of her adult works.

  6. I came to Tove Jansson’s adult work without ever having met the Moomins and was completely smitten. I can also recommend The Winter Book, and the writing is her childhood memoir – I forgot the name but it came back into print a year or two ago – is just gorgeous.

    • That must be ‘The Sculptor’s Daughter’ (I’ve just looked it up). Thank you for the tip. If I continue to make progress with my non-fiction challenge this year, then it’s definitely one for the list!

  7. Melissa Beck says:

    I have only read her short stories. But this book sounds like something I would love, especially the setting in winter.

  8. JacquiWine says:

    Lovely review. Despite loving Jansson’s Moomin books as a child, I’ve read very few of her adult works. The last one was The Summer Book, which led to an interesting discussion among the members of my book group. It would make a good partner for the ‘Winter’ book.

  9. Lucy says:

    I loved this book! I read it a couple of years ago and you’ve made me want to read it again. It’s the only adult book of Jansson’s I’ve read, and with getting caught up with other books I haven’t yet tracked the rest down. The Winter Book will be mine!

    • It’s such a satisfying read. I can see this being a book that I return to, but equally, there’s nothing rushed about the experience. It may take me a while to move on to new books by her, but I’m confident that I will at some point, and that they’ll be worth the wait.

  10. Pingback: Mid-Year Round Up | Shoshi's Book Blog

  11. Pingback: Nobody does it better: ‘A Winter Book’ by Tove Jansson | Shoshi's Book Blog

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