Monday, 9 August 2010

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Published 1965

Yesterday I had two separate discussions with family members about Moomintroll (partly because the New Scientist had published this picture of a marmoset, which reminded me of the Dweller Under the Sink), and by bedtime I felt a need to immerse myself in the quiet of Moominvalley for a while. I promptly picked out Moominpappa at Sea, which is only about Moominvalley at a remove - it's a book which leaves one filled with strange yearnings, and by the time I finished it this morning I was feeling distinctly wistful.

At the start of the book it is Moominpappa who is feeling strange yearnings. He's also feeling disgruntled, because the family aren't according him the respect he feels is his due - they even put out a forest fire without consulting him! His real strength, he decides, lies in his deep understanding of the sea, so they will set sail for the island where he knows his lighthouse stands, and everything will fall into its allotted place again. Moominmamma is, as ever, indulgent and understanding, and for Pappa's sake she is prepared to forsake the valley she loves. Moomintroll and Little My are quite prepared to set off just for the sake of adventure, so Pappa's boat, the Adventure, is loaded up and they set sail at dusk (because that's when events of such significance ought to happen). What they don't know is that someone has followed them...

Anyone who hadn't met the Moomins might think that these stories about small, stout Finnish trolls were for small children. In fact they are amongst the most poignant and expressive in European literature, on the face of it simple little stories about the not-very-exciting daily round of these small creatures and their friends, but which reach deep into the uncertainties and insecurities we all carry around with us. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll and his parents must face the anguish of displacement, Moomintroll and his mother dealing with the physical loss of the valley, Moominpappa with the loss of his role as head of the family, as the others make their own accommodations. "Don't you do anything," he keeps telling Mamma, as he constrains her ever more tightly in a coccoon of protectiveness, which only serves to further aggravate her sense of loss. 

The restricted set of characters - unlike in most of the books where there is both extended family and a wide assortment of Rabbit-type friends-and-relations - serves to underline the claustrophobia of the tiny island, battered on all sides by a not-entirely-amenable Sea. Moomintroll's own sadness is made worse by an unattainable love, which can't be articulated to anyone else. Only Little My is untroubled, rising above her circumstances with all the aplomb (if not actual callousness) that readers will remember from earlier books:
"I'm not saying anything about some mothers and fathers," drawled Little My. "If I do, the first thing you'll say is that they're never silly. They're up to something, those two. I'd eat a bushel of sand if I knew what it was." "You're not supposed to know," said Moomintroll sharply. "They know perfectly well why they're behaving a little oddly. Some people think they're so superior and have to know everything just because they've been adopted!"
All my adult life I've had Moominmamma in the back of my mind as a role model - always unruffled, understanding, warm and kind, bottle of raspberry syrup at the ready. I was glad to find that, determined to create a garden in the scattered rocks of the island, she's as sensibly practical as ever: "Moominmamma pushed the dirty dishes under the bed to make the room look tidier, and then she went out to look for soil." On this reading, though, it's her unhappiness which most deeply affects me, her uprootedness that is continually exacerbated by the failure of her rose plants to grow in inhospitable soil. Her homesickness must be dealt with quietly and discreetly, without impinging on the rest of the family - Moominpappa, of course, is much too wrapped up in his own concerns, as the sea resists his efforts to comprehend its moods.

The end of the book, typically of Tove Jansson, is low-key - fortunately, her adult readers, at least, probably know better than to expect a "story-book" happy ending. There's a resolution of sorts, and for one character, at least, things turn out better than we might have expected. But, as I said at the outset, the end leaves one more wistful than anything else - really, you have to wait for the end of the next (and final) book, Moominvalley in November, for the end of this one. All the Moomin books are ideal for reading aloud to children, but I remember finding that more and more discussion was needed with the later books. For adult readers, however, they are perfect for autumnal days of indulgent melancholia, to be savoured alone and at leisure.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Secret Ministry of Frost

Published 2009

Gordon Fitzwilliam has mysteriously disappeared in the Arctic, and his daughter Light, along with their servant Butler, is attending his funeral - with empty coffin - on ths shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. Thus begins The Secret Ministry of Frost, the intriguing story of Light's quest to find her missing father, following in the steps of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845. Fitzwilliam, curious to know why so many men on that expedition seems to have disappeared without trace, has fallen foul of the aeons-old creature known as Frost, a monster so fearful that even the Inuit won't talk about it.

Light has had an unconventional upbringing: shunned at the local school because she is the albino daughter of an Inuit mother who died on an earlier trip to the Arctic, home-educated by her explorer father and Butler, she is brave and resourceful, and when her home is invaded by murderous slit-eyed killers - isserkiat - she and Butler purchase an ice-breaker and set sail for Nunavut, where she will encounter gods and monsters, and discover the truth of her birth. Despite her Inuit heritage, she is utterly unfamiliar with the physical demands of the Arctic, which tax her strength and courage, and she must also face even the even greater challenge of a shamanistic journey in order to save the world from the ravages of Frost.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Tulku by Peter Dickinson

Published 1979

Sometime in the early 1980s, not long after it was first published, I found Tulku in the library. Both OH and I read it, and thought it a tremendous piece of storytelling. Although it disappeared from the local library I hadn’t forgotten it, and was delighted to find a copy in our local bookshop recently.

Except for the bare outlines of the story – a young boy, escaping from the Boxers during the Taiyuan massacre in 1900, reaches the Tibetan border where he meets a monk who is seeking a reincarnated lama – I had forgotten most of the narrative, and the story seemed entirely fresh to me. Thirteen-year-old Theo is the son of an American missionary killed in the massacre, and when he meets Mrs Jones, an indomitable Victorian plant hunter, he is prepared to dislike her for her vulgarity and even more for her ready cursing, but he allows himself to be persuaded into travelling with her to the safety of the nearest mission. Her eventual plan is to cross the border into the forbidden land of Tibet, where new plants may be found. On their way to seek the sanctuary of the mission for Theo, however, they again encounter the rebels, and they find themselves driven towards the border.

Monday, 4 January 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Published 2009

Eleven year-old Flavia de Luce has a single overriding passion: chemistry. Happily her ancestral home happens to have a well-stocked laboratory to hand (thanks to eccentric Uncle Tarquin), so that when she discovers a body in the cucumber patch, she is immediately able to embark on an investigation.
What starts as an effort to put the senior police officer in his place (he has asked her to rustle up some tea for his team, a demand which quite naturally puts her back up) becomes more urgent when her father is arrested for murder.

Alan Bradley's debut crime novel is a lovely piece of work. From the first page, Flavia's voice is sharp and precocious, and flashes of pure 11 year-old malice vie with the wisdom acquired through an extensive self-education. With her older sisters she's a near monster, but her position as youngest sibling in a motherless family has taught her survival, and her sangfroid born out of their shared reluctance to acknowledge familial affection stands her in good stead when she falls into the hands of a ruthless murderer. Her prickly relationship with Inspector Hewitt is straight from the Golden Age of crime fiction, while her deduction of the murder method - necessary because the Inspector sees no need to share the post mortem findings with a small girl, adds a nice touch. So too the choice of murder weapon, very much of its period. As for the chapter at the end, the one-where-all is-explained, both atmosphere and exposition were worthy of Agatha Christie.