Before I settled on some other reading projects for 2020 (more on that tomorrow), I entertained the possibility of making a simpler goal than usual: choosing half of my reading from my own shelves and half from the library’s shelves.
The idea being that I have tended to read more from the library over the past year than planned, having settled out my habit of over-borrowing in the years prior.
But witness how I have skillfully talked myself out of this plan! Because this pair neatly illustrates the importance of choosing from both sources.
Over time, I’ve collected quite a few novels by Australian writers (thanks to early membership in an online reading group which focussed on their works, when internet book groups were something new to celebrate), which have been neglected on my shelves for ages. And I have considered Tove Jansson’s books on many occasions, but there are very few copies in the library and they are consistently in demand (i.e. with a waiting period and, then, not renewable).
Pulling from my shelves and the library’s shelves allows me to participate in both the Australian Legend’s Australian Women Writers (Third Generation) reading event this week (January 12th-18th) and in Bookjotter’s ongoing Tove Trove event.
Jessica Anderson’s Taking Shelter (1990)
This slim novel has been nestled against Tirra Lirra by the River since I first read and loved that other slim novel, a couple of decades ago. There were other options on my shelves, with this reading week in mind, but I liked the look of the prose in this one.
The rhythm of it reminds me of what Elizabeth Taylor observed about her own preferences for reading and writing in Contemporary Novelists: “I write in scenes, rather than in narrative, which I find boring. I am pleased if the look of a page is interesting, broken by paragraphs or dialogue, not just one dense slab of print.”
At the heart of this novel is Beth’s yearning to connect. There’s one man who’s willing to marry her, who seems decidedly removed from her. Another man who is more emotionally available but more about the present-day than building a shared future. Against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic and an emerging idea that one does not need to pursue someone else’s idea of happiness.
But despite the bold characterization and the passionate declarations, there’s a fragility to all of this. And even though the older generation seems to have gotten it all wrong – “A mistaken marriage to an unspeakable tomcat of a man. She had the patience of an angel, but it got too much at last, and now they’re divorcing.” – there’s little evidence that the next generation has it all figured out.
(For a more detailed consideration, check out Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers. I share her frustration with the excerpts from the dream journal, and agree that it’s an interesting technique which might please other readers. Certainly readers would have been more receptive in the era of publication, when dream journals and little pillows with scented herbs were becoming popular.)
Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (1982; Trans. Thomas Teal, 2009)
The prose in this Jansson novel is just the kind that would have deterred Elizabeth Taylor: chunky with scattered dialogue. But the book is short, the margins wide, and chapters only a few pages long: the language is simple and the syntax propulsive:
“Towards the end of August everything went quiet again, back to normal. And by and by came winter.”
Between these two statements, a season changes. The world looks one way and, then, it is transformed. It’s unrecognizable. This is what happens in the narrative beyond these sentences too. And it’s just as quiet as the end of August, the transformation which is at the heart of this slim novel.
Along the way – or perhaps I should say ‘by and by’ – what is normal also shifts dramatically. For better. And for worse. At the same time. And if that kind of discrepancy troubles you, Jansson’s story likely isn’t for you. There is a sibling relationship, a relationship between two women, and a relationship between a woman and a dog – all against the backdrop of the web of relationships that exist in a small coastal community in Finland.
The story unfolds in a time when nobody locks their doors, not at night and not ever. The doors do not even have locking mechanisms. But the nature of the adversary in this story – if, indeed, there is such a thing – isn’t the usual sort. Certainly not the sort that can be barricaded through the use of a lock. The matter of deception – its twinned theme of betrayal – stems from a different sort of power. Though the fear one can experience in the face of it, that’s the usual kind of fear.
There are more works by both of these authors on the library’s shelves. With Anderson, there are seven books from which to choose, but only one is a circulating copy (a Text Classics edition of The Commandant). With Jansson, there are Moonintrolls, in comics and stories, along with a volume of non-fiction and two collections of stories.