‘Notes From an Island’ by Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä *****

Tove Jansson and Tuulikki ‘Tooti’ Pietilä’s collaborative Notes From an Island was my most anticipated release of 2021.  The beautifully designed large-format hardback, filled with beautiful writing and gorgeously evocative paintings, was published in its first English translation by the wonderful Sort Of Books, who have brought so much of Jansson’s work to an English-speaking audience.  Notes From an Island pulls together snippets of writing from Tove, in the form of both diary entries and vignettes, extracts from ‘maverick seaman’ Brunström’s log, and Pietilä’s artwork, 24 ‘copperplate etchings and wash drawings’ which she made during the 1970s. 

When she was in her late forties, Jansson, most famous for her delightful Moomin stories, ‘raced to build a cabin on an almost barren outcrop of rock in the Gulf of Finland’, on an island named Klovharun, located at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago.  For the next ‘twenty-six summers’, Jansson and her life partner, Pietilä, ‘retreated there to live, paint and write, energised by the solitude and shifting seascapes.’  They remained there until their mid-seventies, eventually relinquishing their beloved cabin in 1991.  Notes From an Island, which came out in its original Swedish in 1996, is ‘both a memoir and homage to the island the two women loved intensely.’  

The short introductory publisher’s note states the differences between Jansson’s previous summer home, which she shared with her mother and brother on the ‘leafy and welcoming’ island of Bredskär, and the ‘stark’ Klovharun, ‘the preserve of warring gulls and terns’.  The note goes on to praise this ‘moving homage to a tiny, rugged island and to a profound and enduring relationship.’ 

Jansson begins by writing about Bredskär, where, she says: ‘We had everything, albeit in miniature – a little forest with a woodland path, a little beach with a safe place for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass.’  She goes on to tell us that Klovharun is between just 6- and 7,000 square metres; it is ‘shaped like an atoll’, divided by a lagoon in its middle.  Both Jansson and Pietilä ‘relished the storms that would lash the granite rocks, marooning them for days.’   

One of my favourite things about Jansson’s work – and there are many! – is the way in which she captures the natural world.  Notes From an Island begins: ‘I love rock – sheer cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, unscalable mountain peaks, pebbles in my pocket.  I love prising stones out of the ground, heaving them aside and letting the biggest ones roll down the granite slope into the water!  As they rumble away, they leave behind an acrid whiff of sulphur.’  She writes with such care, especially regarding colour, texture, and scents: ‘On some of the blasted surfaces’, she tells us, when their cabin is being constructed, ‘the rock has an unusual colour, like oxblood or Pompeiian red, a hard colour to capture.  Also the rainwater in the little hollows at the bottom of the pit is red or cadmium yellow.’  Later, she writes of quite a spectacle, when the sea ice breaks up before her eyes: ‘When we woke up, the whole ocean was full of broken ice.  Unbelievable tabernacles floated by, driven by a mild south-west breeze, statuesque, glittering, as big as trolleys, cathedrals, primeval caverns, everything imaginable!  And they changed colour whenever they felt like it – ice blue, green and, in the evenings, orange.  Early in the morning they would be pink.’ 

Jansson’s notes are occasionally quite matter-of-fact, but I still found that they expressed a great deal; for instance: ‘Tooti is building shelves in the cellar. / It’s starting to get cold.’  She captures comedic scenes, particularly with regard to sailor and general handyman, Brunström, and his escapades.  She writes of the time when he found ‘a huge ship’s mast, pitch-black, and with all the fittings still in place’.  Brunström was determined to use this in the construction of the cabin, and had real trouble towing it ashore, almost destroying his boat in the process.  There are moments of childish delight, too.  On visiting one March, Jansson writes: ‘We were exhilarated by change and expectation and ran headlong here and there in the snow and threw snowballs at the navigation marker.  Tooti made a toboggan out of thin strips of wood, and we rode it again and again from the top of the island far out across the ice.’ 

Thomas Teal’s translation is truly excellent, and he captures so much of Jansson’s glee, as well as the often amusing brevity from Brunström’s log.  On the 14th of October 1964, for instance, he writes: ‘Jansson shot an eider by mistake this morning and the ladies boiled it for three hours but it made a lousy dinner.’  Teal evokes Jansson’s artistry, and her keen eye for noticing: ‘Sometimes we build things to be solid and lasting, and sometimes to be beautiful, sometimes both.’  

Notes From an Island comes together wonderfully.  The matter-of-fact entries of Brunström contrast wonderfully with Jansson’s beautiful eye for detail.  Both are complemented by Pietilä’s full-page artwork, which makes masterful use of light and shadow using only brown tones.  I loved the collaborative approach taken here; it is something I see quite rarely when reading, and I really appreciated the level of detail which it brought to the book.  At just 94 pages, this is one to really linger over.  Notes From an Island is entrancing; it is a glorious celebration of nature, of solitude, of collaboration, of love. 

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