Lockdown Reading: Tove Jansson

At the moment I’m reading A Winter Book, a collection of short stories by Tove Jansson. Although it is aimed at adults, many of the stories are wonderful evocations of the intensity of childhood, told from a child’s perspective. The imaginative and articulate narrator is bristling with energy, full of ideas and adventures from her own experiences, and an insightful reporter on her parents’ world.

One story in especial resonates in lockdown: a story about a mother and child who go to stay in a strange house, and then wake to find that they have been snowed in. Initially, the child feels uncomfortable in the house, unsettled by its unfamiliarity and the belongings of the “other family” who normally live there. She does not understand why they are staying there, and considers that her mother gives “no proper answer” for their visit.

When the snow encapsulates the house however, the mood changes. The child’s resentment is replaced by the sense that she and her mother have entered the world of their shared imagination: isolation becomes something special and sustaining…

Next morning the daylight was green, underwater lighting throughout the room. Mummy was asleep. I got up and opened the door and saw that the lamps were on in all the rooms although it was morning and the green light came through the snow which covered the windows all the way up. Now it had happened. The house was a single enormous snowdrift, and the surface of the ground was somewhere high up above the roof. Soon the trees would creep down into the snow until only their tops stuck out, and then the tops would disappear too and everything would level itself off and be flat. I could see it, I knew. Not even praying would stop it.

I became very solemn and quite calm and sat down on the carpet in front of the blazing fire.

Mummy woke up and came in and said, ‘Look how funny it is with snow covering the windows,’ because she didn’t understand how serious it all was. When I told her what had really happened, she became really thoughtful.

‘In fact,’ she said after a while, ‘we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!’

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. The menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on outside. […]

Then we began our underground life. We walked around in our nighties and did nothing. Mummy didn’t draw. We were bears with pine needles in our stomachs and anyone who dared to come near our winter lair was torn to pieces. We were lavish with the wood, and threw log after log onto the fire until it roared.

Sometimes we growled. We let the dangerous world outside look after itself; it had died, it had fallen out into space. Only Mummy and I were left.” (pp 49-50 “Snow”, A Winter Book)

The power of the shared imagination changes everything as the child recenters her perceptions. This new fleeting world is “for ever” (or feels like it). The threat to life is reflected back onto the world outside. They don’t bother to dress, the mother (an illustrator) doesn’t even try to work, and the pair become luxuriant survivors, cocooned by their shared imaginations.

Transposed to our own times, the narrative resonates with the strange isolation of lockdown, the intensification of family bonds, and the difficulty of working in a time of home schooling. Although it is in many ways idealised and idealising, it speaks to the power of shared narratives to transform fear into safety, and isolation into community: something that we reach towards as we bash pans and rattle railings, to celebrate the bravery of carers each lockdown Thursday.

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