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!