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Eccentric and precise, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories (NYRB Classics) assembles twenty six stories from Finnish artist and writer Tove Jansson, presenting a mix of unique landscapes, eerie tensions, and an old world perfectly preserved. While Jansson was best known for her tubby Moomin cartoons, her fiction for adults creates a nuanced reality that reflects the pleasure of solitude, the passions of the artist, dark tensions, and the wit of what it means to be human.
This compilation culls stories from five of Jansson’s short story collections, and it’s remarkable to watch her range as a storyteller develop, moving from simple tales to longer, nuanced creations. Every story is sharp, but the early stories here often involve just one or two solitary people, whether it’s the woman who begins to obsess over the squirrel that visits her cabin alone on an island, or the moving homage to Edward Gorey that gorgeously explores the solitude necessary to make art, while the love of a partner warms from afar. Stories where a range of characters come into the fold offer more chance for wit, such as in “The Summer Child,” when a precocious, spoiled boy from the city goes to spend the summer with a family on an island who has offered a country experience for a boarder. While watching the son make something with his hands, the opinionated child remarks:
“But it’s such a waste of good work.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, since the world’s going to end, you might as well use plastic.”
And then he’d start in again, the whole thing, nuclear war and God knows what, blah, blah, blah, nothing but endless blather.
Janssons’ stories never meander, solid in their craftsmanship, and there’s always an unexpected epiphany or satisfying climax. In “The Listener,” an elderly aunt is failing in mind and etiquette, until she begins to map out a life’s worth of gossip. In “A Memory From The New World,” an eldest daughter confronts her sister’s disingenuous suitor while trying to protect her family in America. A retired upholsterer develops an obsession with a dollhouse, much to his partner Erik’s dismay in the cheeky “The Doll’s House,” a story whose conclusion involves an interloper referred to simply as Boy. While works like Jansson’s novel The Summer Book or story collection Fair Play present one full world for readers to fall into, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories offers varied landscapes, merry scenarios (three old friends go for a night on the town) or dark tensions. In the title story, a woman returns to her old apartment, nostalgic for a past love, only to learn that her friend has appropriated more than her address. Jansson’s use of dialogue heightens the escalating panic the narrator feels, and its expert storytelling when the story begins to feel as claustrophobic as the apartment itself.
For readers who are as much a fan of Jansson’s work as they are of her beloved relationship with the fine artist Tuulikki Pietilä, their love is absent in these stories, although the fiction at hand is filled with artists, islands, and quiet relationships. Letter writing appears in several stories, and the motif becomes an unintended ode to a world before e-mail, before constant screens, when communication perhaps took more time and more heart. In “Letters from Klara,” a spunky character emerges from a short series of letters, written to a godchild, a hurt friend, an artist seeking one of his works. In “Correspondance,” a young Japanese fan writes to the idolized Moomin creator, resulting in a stark, tender portrait: “Thank you for your very wise letter. I understand the forest’s big in Finland and the sea too but your house is very small.” And the final story, “Messages,” are simply an arrangement of scraps of fan mail, notes left on the kitchen table, requests for help with a school assignment, and commercial requests (“We look forward to your valued reply soonest concerning Moomin motifs on toilet paper in pastel shades.”) Real or not, the messages are charming, and there is a glimpse of the life Jansson shared with Pietilä: “Hi coming later heat the soup Kiss, T.” A beautiful end cap to an impressive collection of short stories.
The Woman Who Borrowed Memories
by Tove Jansson
Paperback, 9780989036115, 304 pp.