Roll over Shake­speare, I’ll take my trea­sured Tove

My favourite novel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathryn Hey­man

IN the years I lived in Bri­tain, I lis­tened reg­u­larly to a BBC ra­dio in­ter­view pro­gram called Desert Is­land Discs in which the sub­jects imag­ined what mu­sic they would take to a desert is­land. In ad­di­tion to mu­sic, you were al­lowed one lux­ury item plus the com­plete works of Shake­speare.

I un­der­stood the need to take the com­plete works — but in my desert is­land fan­tasy, I’d ar­gue in favour of trad­ing Shake­speare for the Tove Jans­son col­lec­tion. For wis­dom, in­sight, com­fort, guid­ance, com­pany and wit, this Fin­nish writer could sus­tain me for a life­time.

She’s widely known as a chil­dren’s writer who cre­ated the en­dear­ing Moomins, of­ten loved with al­most fa­nat­i­cal pas­sion or else dis­missed as cutesy talk­ing an­i­mals. But even her Moomins are big­ger than they seem — each char­ac­ter cap­tur­ing and re­veal­ing hu­man foibles and frail­ties with per­cep­tive clar­ity.

Jans­son, who died in 2001, aged 86, was rare in her abil­ity to recog­nise the hu­man con­di­tion un­flinch­ingly but al­ways threaded with love. This qual­ity is es­pe­cially alive in her ex­tra­or­di­nary work for adults — sto­ries, nov­els and es­says that have been steadily trans­lated in the past decade, to the joy of those of us who adore her.

Of all Jans­son’s work, though, it is Fair Play to which I re­turn in small and large doses. I must have given away a dozen copies of this since it was pub­lished posthu­mously in English in 2007, each gift cre­at­ing a new con­vert. This slim novel of love and work is, as Bri­tish writer Ali Smith has said, dis­cretely rad­i­cal’’.

Es­chew­ing tra­di­tional nar­ra­tive arcs in favour of a more cir­cu­lar, ex­ploratory form, Fair Play is a se­ries of gen­tle yet pre­cise vi­gnettes that un­pack the na­ture of cre­ativ­ity. Two women, Mari and Jonna, live and work to­gether, oc­ca­sion­ally trav­el­ling, col­lect­ing iras­ci­ble, dif­fi­cult peo­ple. Work and love, the two com­po­nents so cen­tral to all Jans­son’s writ­ing, breathe through each in­ter­ac­tion.

Each del­i­cate mo­ment in this novel is so finely tuned that the reader in­hab­its rather than ob­serves.

Jans­son is some­times read as a re­al­ist writer, but she is not. Nor is she straight­for­wardly sym­bol­ist — not in the gilded-rope-

‘‘ philo­soph­i­cally calm and

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