Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal
“I loved this book. It’s cool in both senses of the word, understated yet exciting …. The characters still haunt me.” – Ruth Rendell
It wasn’t until I went to an amazing exhibition on the life and work of Tove Jansson at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London at the beginning of 2018 that I fully realised that Tove Jansson wasn’t only well known for her Moomin books.
Jansson was the daughter of Finnish artists from the country’s Swedish-speaking minority, and studied art in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, as well as in Helsinki and Paris. From her 50s she wrote several books for adults. The True Deceiver was published in 1982, but appeared in English translation only in 2009.
I chose it pragmatically, on the basis that my husband (a childhood Moomin fan) owns it, and it was just sitting there on the bookshelf downstairs. He has several of her novels in translation, but this particular one was included by Boyd Tonkin in his pick of The 100 Best Novels in Translation in 2019.
The prose in The True Believer is disarmingly simple, but the book is much more nuanced than it first appears. The descriptions of the landscape and the small hamlet in which the story is set are beautifully evocative. I found this particularly the case as I was reading the book during the summer months, when snow and months-long ice seemed an even more alien experience than usual.
“People woke up late because there was no longer any morning. The village lay soundless under untouched snow until the children were let out and dug tunnels and caves and shrieked and were left to themselves”.
Strange, yellow-eyed Katri Kling lives with her 15-year-old orphaned brother Mats and her nameless, yellow-eyed dog in an attic above a shop, where she lies, unsleeping, worrying about money.
Meanwhile, an old lady, Anna Amelin, illustrates whimsical books featuring flowery rabbits and lives alone in a villa that is dubbed by the locals as the ‘rabbit house’, along with her long-dead parents’ overflowing paperwork and disused furniture.
This novel has a mythological feel, and fairly crackles with ice. It is a beautiful, short book about withholding and trusting, about the difference between the surface and what lies beneath, about alienation and acceptance, and about the casual cruelties and intimacies of small-town life.