Wednesday, June 26, 2013

She eats only grass, but she has a meat eater's heart

Outside on the summer veranda was a large snowdrift that the northwest wind had swept up in a bold curve, both playful and austere. A light, transparent fan of snow whirled above the knife edge at the ridge. This drift described the same line every winter, and it was always equally beautiful. But the drift was too big and too simple for Anna to have noticed it.

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson, is a weird little novel. Katri is good with numbers and of a logical bent, and in this calculating way, insinuates herself, with her simple-minded brother and nameless dog, into the life — and house — of Anna, a wealthy and slightly dotty illustrator of children's books.

Anna is if not exactly absent-minded somehow absent from the world, disconnected, child-like. She has no business sense, and little people sense, and it's a wonder how she muddled along before Katri came along. Anna does, however, have an exquisite talent for painting the forest floor in true and living detail (although she adds flowery rabbits at her publisher's insistence); she's spent her life trying to ground herself in this way.

Not much happens really. The prose is as chilly as the wintry Nordic landscape. Anna awaits the spring so she can paint, and the effect is that the reader is similarly in a state of suspended animation, anticipating the thaw, knowing that some semblance of life lurks just below the surface. But what kind of life? Can it be true that "She eats only grass, but she has a meat eater's heart"?

The villagers too, as in any village, I guess, keep up appearances that cover streaks of malicious ill will.

Katri's intentions are never entirely clear, whether she is running away from something or actively pursuing a higher plan, whether her scheming is noble or selfish. How much emotion lies beneath her cool façade? Only her brother can be taken at face value. "Mats has no secrets. That's why he's so mysterious."

It's ambiguous also whether her dog is wild or tame, and when is he acting true to his nature.

"And don't go telling yourself that dog is happy. He just obeys..."

Katri turned around. "Obey?" she said. "You don't know the meaning of the word. I means believing in a person and following orders that are consistent, and it's a relief, it means freedom from responsibility. It's a simplification. You know what you have to do. It's safe and reassuring to believe in just one thing."

"Just one thing!" Anna burst out. "What a lecture. And why in the world should I obey you?"

Katri's reply was chilly. "I though we were talking about the dog."

It's an unsettling novel, with the quality of a dark fairy tale, because of the ambiguity of Katri's intentions, because of the slipperiness of Anna's perception of reality, because the dog is ominously frightening. Katri is cynical, Anna is naïve; they are both deceivers, on different orders. A short, subtle, tightly controlled journey through a wilderness of human behaviour.

Ursula K Le Guin, The Guardian:
Her spare exactness can express not only tension and stress but deeply felt emotion, expansion, relaxation and peace. Her description is unhurried, accurate and vivid, an artist's vision. Her style is not at all "poetic" — quite the contrary. It is prose of the very highest order; it is pure prose. Through its quiet clarity we see unreachable depths, threatening darkness, promised treasures. The sentences are beautiful in structure, movement and cadence. They have inevitable rightness.

The True Deceiver is Argo Bookshop's book club choice for June 26. See you there.

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