The first novel I read by Tove Jansson, The Summer Book, concerned the relationship between a woman and her granddaughter as they spent the season on a small island off the coast of Finland. Fair Play is also the story of two women, this time a couple, Mari and Jonna, who maintain separate apartments in the same building. As with the pair in The Summer Book, the relationship is primary but never supercedes who they are as individuals. What united Summer’s pair was a common loss, all but unspoken: the death of the woman who was daughter to one and mother to the other. Fair Play’s couple are bound by what they have: a life-long relationship, a history together with an often prickly insight into each other’s personalities. They sometimes bicker and argue and each one can be obstinate and obtuse as well as supportive and patient with the other. It’s a realistic rather than romanticized look at relationships and getting older.
As Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, there is an underlying theme about the decisions made in creative work being metaphoric for decisions made in life: what to edit out, what to build on and what to rearrange. The language of the book is spare, direct and fairly unadorned but as with an effective understatement, it hints at a great deal without spelling it out. It also evokes the nature of Mari and Jonna’s relationship. At this point in their lives some things don’t need to be said.
"Mari," said Jonna, "sometimes you're really a little too obvious."
"Do you think? But once in a while a person just needs to say what doesn't need to be said. Don't you think?"
And they went back to their reading.
Each chapter is self-contained so that it’s more like reading a collection of short stories than a novel. There is a pattern: introduce a third element, such as a person, act of nature, or unexpected event and then detail how Mari and Jonna react. Jansson is able to deftly sketch the various characters who try, with mixed results, to latch on to the old ladies. During a trip to the American southwest, a hotel maid decides to be their unrequested tour guide. One of Jonna’s students is seen as a threat by Mari. A visiting Russian poet manages to be both bewildering and overbearing, as does a woman who visits with a scrapbook dedicated to Mari’s mother. Sections vary from those dedicated to life’s little pleasures, like videotaping movies off of tv -- making sure to edit out the commercials -- and watching together later, to larger events, like their vacation in America, which inspires the book’s funniest line when a bartender in dive bar tells the locals “Give these ladies some room. They’re from Finland.”
In addition to novels, Jansson also wrote and drew comic strips and children’s books. Her ability to entertain in few words is evident here. While flipping through Fair Play to check one or two of my facts, I was surprised at how short the chapters are. Many are no more than six pages long. My eyes would fall on a sentence and the entirety of the story would return, along with a desire to reread itimmediately.