Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver stood out among this month’s reads. Set in the depths of winter in a Finnish village, it is memorable for its stark beauty.
An oddly compelling novel, it’s the story of two woman. Katri, who must look after her young brother Mats, is known for her honesty; though some regard her yellow eyes with suspicion and call her a witch. Anna, an artist, is older. She seems either to live in memories of a time when her parents were still alive, or the fantasy forest world of the children’s books she illustrates.
As their lives become intertwined the story develops into a battle of wills between Katri and Anna.
The writing is clean, often brisk, with shifts in point of view that can seem clumsy but work to keep the reader from making easy judgements. The atmosphere is more fairy tale than realism; this is a world cut off, locked in by snow with a sea that is frozen over.
Stark images linger long after the book is over: Anna’s unwanted furniture stacked up on the frozen sea waiting for the spring thaw to wash it away. In contrast, there is the new boat taking shape in the boathouse, the one that Mats dreams of owning.
As well as a gripping story, what goes on between the two woman is a kind of ethical debate. Don’t let this put you off. The questions are played out in the daily tussles and details of housekeeping, shopping, letters that must be written, and, of course, keeping accounts.
Their situation raises questions to do with honesty and reliability, trust and dependency, self-delusion and self-protection. The question at the heart of the book asks: in the interactions between people what really matters, what is ‘the truth’ – the motivation or the end result?
It’s the kind of book that when you get to the end you want to go back to the beginning.
Jansson has an international reputation for her Moomin stories for children. Now there are more recent translations of her adult fiction. The True Deceiver comes with an enthusiastic introduction by Ali Smith.
Highly recommended if you’re looking for something fresh, original and as thoughtful as it is entertaining.