Land & Nature / Tove’s Island

Some years ago I was lucky enough to visit the island where The Summer Book is set, far out on the Gulf of Finland, where Tove Jansson spent almost every summer of her life. This short novel tells the story of a small, recently bereaved girl, Sophia, and her grandmother, elderly, mischievous and wise. She is Sophia’s companion and they roam the island together, falling asleep under bushes, musing on religion – ‘are there ants in heaven?’ and discussing the pleasures of sleeping in a tent. They find a seal skull and plant it where it gleams with all its teeth. ‘When are you going to die?’ the child asks her grandmother. ‘Soon,’ she replies, ‘but that is not the least concern of yours.’

It is a clear, warm day on the Pellinge Peninsula when I stand on the jetty waiting for the real-life Sophia to steer me across to the island in her boat. I feel privileged to have been invited to enter the world that inspired this book, and with great anticipation I step aboard. The sea looks calm when we set off but the wind is against us, the water rough, and the boat slams down from the tip of each wave, soaking us with spray. Sophia, fully grown, shows not the slightest sign of fear. Does it ever capsize? I want to ask but there’s only one answer worth hearing so I stay quiet.

‘Go ahead,’ Sophia shouts when, twenty minutes later, we arrive. So I step over soft grey stones, enter a glade of pines and find the house. I recognise the wood pile and the steep steps that lead to Grandmother’s room, the faded blue of the paint, the attic into which Sophia crawled when she was cross. There is the screen door, the stove – so vital to their lives – and beyond it a window opening onto another sweep of sea.

I put my bag down and set off to explore. I stick to the very edges of the land, stepping over boulders, climbing through the undergrowth of scrub, past a miniature meadow of flowers, another of dry grass, up into the pine wood and I’m back. My walk has taken four and a half minutes.

To calm myself I think of all the things that Sophia and Grandmother do on this tiny island during the long slow months of summer. They make animal sculptures and carve boats from bark. They gather berries, driftwood and bones. They draw ‘awful things,’ tell stories, build Venice in the marsh pool, row across to other islands, talk and sleep and swim. I’ve been thinking about a swim since we first arrived, but the knowledge that it is never going to get completely dark creates such a feeling of leisure that we put it off until nearly ten o’clock. The air is grainy, the water silky and cool, and later when I step outside for a last look at the sky, I find it has turned deep orange where it meets the sea. If I can stay awake, I tell myself, this day will never really end.

Words by Esther Freud

Image of Klovharun island, courtesy of Juho kuva/Visit Finland

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