Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver – Den ärlige bedragaran (1982)

The True Deceiver

Swedish-speaking Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson is most famous for her stories featuring the Moomintroll family and their friends. Their creation spans almost thirty years. The first story came out in the 40s, the last in the seventies. When Tove Jansson was in her 60s she began to write books for adults. Some, like The True Deceiver, are novels, other’s, like Fair Play, are a collection of linked short stories, or episodic novels.

I always wanted to read her work, the books for children just as much as the books for adults, and I have no idea why it took me so long. After having finished The True Deceiver and already started Fair Play, I must say, this is one of those writers whose every book I want to read. She’s such an orginal, refreshing, and highly inspiring writer.

Katri and her younger brother, Mats, live in a village, in an unnamed Nordic country. It’s the deep winter. The land is covered in snow. The lake is frozen. Katri has just resigned from a job for the local merchant. Her brother helps building boats, his biggest wish being a boat of his own. In the same hamlet lives Anna Aemelin, a famous, rich children’s book illustrator. She’s become famous for her detailed depictions of the forest, which she adorns with drawings of rabbits. Katri decides that she wants Anna’s money for her brother. And she wants to get it in an honest way. Now honesty is an elastic term and for Katri it seems to mean— speaking the truth. Anna Aemelin has her own idea of what honesty means. And so does Mats.

The blurb of the English edition tells the reader that Katri fakes a break-in at Anna’s house to convince her she needs companionship, that’s why it’s not a spoiler to mention that she and Mats will move into Anna’s big house.

While the plot is interesting, the book’s strength lies in the characters and the setting. These people are so unusual. All three are eccentrics, each in their own way. And their interests, occupations, their innermost being is so original.

The artist Anna Aemelin was the character I enjoyed the most. Before Katri arrives, she’s not even aware of how much money she made with her illustrations. She lives a very ordered life, following the seasons. In winter, she doesn’t draw. It’s a bit as if she was hibernating. She orders food from the shops, doesn’t go out, and spends her days answering fan letters and reading adventure stories for kids. The books will be the foundation of her friendship with the boy Mats, a friendship that will create tensions between her and Katri. In spring, after the thawing, Anna goes into the forest and draws her pictures.

Katri is mysterious. She resembles a mythical figure, how she walks around with her huge, nameless dog, hardly speaking to anyone.

The way they live and communicate with each other is so peculiar because all three characters are loners. The conflicts between Katri and Anna are fascinating because they are both scheming, but both can’t really lie. But does that make them honest?

The story is set during winter and a huge part of its charm stems from the descriptions of the winter landscape, the harshness of the weather, the isolation of the big rambling house.

I don’t want to say too much. Pick it up and discover this unique writer for yourself. It’s certainly going to make my Top 10 of the year.

I read the German translation. That’s why I can’t offer any quotes. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve already started Fair Play, the story of two women artists. It’s another great find. I also want to read her Moomin stories chronologically and have her biography and a few other novels sitting on my piles. So, be prepared, you might read a lot more about Tove Jansson on this blog in the future.

Tove Jansson

28 thoughts on “Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver – Den ärlige bedragaran (1982)

  1. Isn’t she a wonderful writer? I’ve read a lot of the shorter works, but still have this to look forward to on Mount TBR!🙂

  2. Yay! We’ve got another convert! Isn’t she an amazing writer, character, person? As you say, one of those writers that I really want to read in every detail. Have you read The Summer Book? That was the first book for grown-ups of hers that I read and it’s so evocative of childhood summers and a poignant relationship between grandmother and granddaughter.

    • Oh, yes, I’m a convert! I’m sure it would have been wonderful to meet her in person. I loved this book.
      I haven’t read anything else by her yet but I’ve got The Summer Book already and I’m looking foward to it.

  3. I’ll be delighted to read a lot more about Tove Jansson. I remember reading this one, not long before I started reading about books, and I’ve loved the few others I’ve found. Her childhood ‘memoir’ in particular is every bit as delightful as you’d hope it might be.

    • I’m glad to hear that.
      She must have been a true original. You can feel it reading her. I saw that childhood “memoir” another one I must read. Maybe this will be my Tove Jansson summer.

  4. I have a couple of this author’s titles on my shelf: this one, Fair Play and a collection of short stories–all from NYRB. Oddly enough I am currently reading a book about a writer who is oblivious about the money her books are generating.

    • I’m very interested to hear what you think of her.
      What a coincidence. That’s how Anna is – she doesn’t know and hardly cares how much she makes.

  5. I loved the Moomin books as a little girl; they were passed between the youngsters in our family, so I feel I’ve grown up with Tove. It’s been a while since I read any of work for adults, but my old book group picked The Summer Book a few years ago. I think you’d probably like that one too – Marina’s comment is spot-on.

    The True Deceiver sounds great. Jansson is an original writer, she’s very strong on the idiosyncrasies of life.

    • It’s a great book. I’m sure you’d like it. I never read the Moomins as a kid. I wish I had. I’m sure I would have loved them.
      Good point about the idiosyncrasies. I’m looking forward to reading The Summer Book. If both you and Marina praise it – I’ can’t go wrong.

  6. This sounds very good Caroline.

    It sounds very original. Three unusual loners together in a novel is unusual in of itself. The cliché of the outgoing person paired with the quiet person is so prevalent.

    I tend to also like descriptions of winter scenes.

    • It seems that most of her novels are populated with original characters. Artists and eccentrics. I’m sure you’d like her. I’ve never spent a winter in the north but in a way it does sound appealing.

  7. I loved this novel, I thought it was very thought provoking and perhaps a little autobiographical in parts, that dilemma of the artist and their audience, in particular young children. Jansson really does characters well, her stories in ‘Art in Nature’ are really all character studies. I agree with you, she has a unique talent that is unlike anything else and isn’t trying to be anything but herself, it shows.

  8. I’ve never really been bitten by the Jansson bug, but am intrigued reading your review Caroline. I always had the impression that her books are about innocence under threat somehow. This would probably be the one I’d choose if I was to start with her stuff.

    • I would love to hear what you think of her. This one isn’t about innocence under threat at all. Maybe the children’s books are about that? If they are then only to some extent. You can’t nail her down to one theme.
      She’s refreshingly different. Nobody you could compare her too and her characters don’t care about society or its expectations. The charcaters in Fair Play for example are in their 70s but living life as if they were still very young. Full of energy and curiosity.
      I guess True Deceive would be a good book for you to start with.

      • That’s very interesting. I guess it shows the danger in making assumptions about books or writers. “Nobody you could compare her to” is a recommendation – there are few things more satisfying then discovering someone who is completely sui generis, where you can think: “well, I haven’t seen *that* before!”

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline. I love books which focus on a few characters and where the setting plays an important role or atleast is very prevalent in the story. This book seems to have all of that. I have read some of Tove Jansson’s Moomingtroll stories and loved them. I want to read her books ‘The Summer Book’ and ‘The Winter Book’ sometime. ‘The True Deceiver’ made me remember a book that I read sometime back called ‘The Birds’ by Tarjei Vessas – it also had three main characters in a cold landscape. ‘Fair Play’ sounds like a wonderful book from your description – a story about two women artists – sounds so fascinating. Happy reading! I can’t wait to read your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks you, Vishy. I’m sure this is an author for you. Maybe you’d like Fair Play even more than this. It’s so wonderful. But I particularly liked the winter descriptions in this one. I think it will be nice to read The Winter Book and The Summer Book close together. What a coincidence – I have one of Vessas novels here (Spring Night) and want to read it soon. The Birds sounds like a very interesting book as well.

  10. Ha! I just bought myself a cheap copy of this. Excellent news that you loved it. I did adore The Summer Book, which I read several years ago, at which point I made a mental note to read more by Tove Jansson. Really must get around to that soon!

  11. I never did read any of her children’s books, though I think my library has some and I really should go check them out, but I did read and love The Summer Book! She is someone I have ever since meant to read more of and just this past week I ordered a book of short stories (am binging on short stories at the moment) as well as the book you mention, Fair Play–serendipity that we are both thinking about her at just the same time. I look forward to hearing about Fair Play and will add this novel to my wishlist as well. Have you ever seen any of her artwork in person? I am totally unfamiliar with it–she sounds like such an interesting woman!

    • This is serendipity. I’m in the mood to read all of her books this summer. At least those for grown ups. Fair Play is fantastic too. I’m sure ou’ll like it. I think her children’s books must be just as wonderful. I seemed to rememeber you liked The Summer Book. I’d love to see her artwork. Or even visit the Moomin musuem in Finland. I’ve got the hefty biography that came out last year or so. She sounds like a stunning person. Creative and unconventional.

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