I hadn’t read any of Tove Jansson’s work prior to this, and knew pretty much nothing about her. Basically she was a Finnish (but Swedish-speaking) writer and artist who became most famous as the creator of the Moomins. As a result, her adult fiction (she focused exclusively on adult fiction from the early 1970s onwards) is comparatively neglected and undervalued. The True Deceiver was published in Swedish in 1982, and it has taken until 2009 for the first English translation to appear. Thomas Teal did the wonderful job.
I bought the book on the strength of this review I read on the train
I wasn’t disappointed. The prose is precise and cold almost; it’s maybe the least sentimental book I can think of reading (my recently-read Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat is pretty unsentimental too). It’s not “look how lovely and idyllic this snowy Swedish village is.” It’s about the harshness and coldness and severity of the Scandinavian winter.
The plot is simple – a social outcast but trusted maths genius, Katri Kling, is poor, in her twenties, and responsible for her teenage brother Mats. She decides that she is going to live in the “rabbit house” of famous children’s author Anna Aemelin in the same village (the house resembles a rabbit) because she wants to give Mats a better, more secure life. So she takes advantage of a robbery in the village by faking a break-in at the Aemelin rabbit house to convince Anna she needs companionship and the security of having someone living with her.
The rest of the novel is essentially about the power struggles between the pair, a psychological tussle. Katri is ambitious, cold, reserved, honest, and Anna is innocent, creative, lackadaiscal. Over time, the roles gradually seem to be reversing. Anna becomes much colder, while Katri seems to take on a more emotional personality at points. It’s also extremely subtle and while both Katri and Anna do seem to take on elements of the others’ personality, it’s not as prosaic and boring and obvious as a clean switch. It doesn’t end with any kind of resolution, which I think is a good thing. It leaves things hanging. It’s quite haunting.
There is some wonderful imagery here and some insightful observations. I think there are a couple of reviews that say it better than I do, but this is a unique and strange and beautiful book perfect for the winter. I think in time I will come to read Jansson’s other works.