Ash Wednesday, 17th February, clear skies, mouse ice, 9 shoots of native daffodils now, and a frog vertical in the weeds, seeming to look up from under the ice in the little new pool. Alive or dead? Can't tell until the sun warms it. Christmas reading feature, final entry
There are two women. One is young and harsh and good with figures. The other is an old, sweet-natured, unworldly artist. Both are outsiders in a small Nordic community: the old woman isolated by status in her big house, the young woman isolated by nature, and by her ambivalent status as the community's fixer; she solves minor business problems, but her solutions make people uneasy. There's a dog, controlled but untamed companion; there's the harsh girl's simple-minded brother. There are other characters, serving to illustrate the central problem. The young woman wants something from the old woman. Basically, she wants a share of the old woman's wealth, but the catch is that she cannot bear to ask for the money, to earn the money, or to deserve the money. Her self-esteem requires her to ask nothing of the world, she has to take. But she has to take by what she considers fair means, and that means (it turns out) by besting the old woman in mind games.
The clueless old woman paints pictures of the forest floor. Her ability to concentrate on the finest detail of what's going on in the living world, right under everyone's feet,is her obsession. Somehow, a population of cute rabbits, rabbits with flowery fur, invaded this passionate life's work. The flowery rabbits irritate her, but they have made her famous. She's plagued by floods of letters from little children, which she tries to take seriously, and floods of international business proposals: which she does not take seriously. She lets herself be cheated, because she isn't interested in figures and she doesn't care.
If you are a Moomin fan, and since this is Tove Jansson talking, you will get the picture. You loved The Summer House, you loved A Winter Book; you may find this one a little disquieting. You may find yourself thinking, hang on, I don't know if I want to know this. . .
The whole action of the novel is contained by the dark, icy snowlit months of a Nordic winter, during which the calculating young woman strips the old artist of her elective naivety about business and other matters, and the old artist strips the calculating young woman of her pride and her self-containment. It's a gripping introverts' adventure, I can't explain how such petty drama and unsparing candour can be so attractive. Like, let me see, Cranford distilled to a fiery strength, but with the cosy warmth and light surgically removed. I think it's the old artist who turns out to be the stronger (did you guess?) but you must make up your own mind.
Spoiler warning, don't get too attached to the flowery rabbits. But if you didn't know already that the Moomins are really people, showing the very peculiar, almost chilling, characteristics that quite ordinary people display (Nordic or not; when you look close, with an unsparing eye); then I can't help you.