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The True Deceiver

by Tove Jansson

Katri sets out to walk through the village in her wolfskin coat, her great hound stalking at her side. Snow is still falling, and no window in the village shows a light. She walks proudly on the hard frozen snow, and would give ground to no one, for Katri has been extremely poor and fiercely independent since she was left, in her sixteenth year, to bring up and care for herself and her little brother, Mats. She is fortunate in having an honest and meticulous understanding of numbers and money, and earns the grudging but absolute respect of the villagers. She knows they do not love her, but it leaves her free to love none but her brother. The dark northern sky sparkles with frost, and she knows that the sea is solid shelf of ice until the spring. As she walks, Katri looks up the hill to the lighted windows of a grand house, where old Anna Aemelin lives alone with her money. A winter queen, Katri makes plans for her young prince...

Anna Aemelin's small water-colours are of the forest floor, as it warms in the spring, moist and dark and ready to burst and to grow. In small, naturalistic and minute detail she depicts mosses and delicate plants that a person out walking would seldom notice. She then spoils her pictures by putting rabbits in them: Mama, Papa and Baby Bunny. They had to be there for the sake of the children and the publisher, for Anna's childrens' books are famous the world over, although the publisher writes the text. Anna has lived for years within the secure, warm and happy memory of her parents, and within walls that have sheltered her family for generations. She has always been able to afford to be charming, and no one in the village can ever remember her uttering a spiteful word, nor do they hesitate to cheat her of a few pennies here and there, over the years. She corresponds kindly with hundreds of children, although her letters lie higgledy-piggledy, stuffed into the drawers of her bureau with her bills and receipts, and letters from plastics companies who want to make dolly rabbits.

Anna invites Katri, with Mats and the dog, to come and live with her. And, as the northern winter fastens on them all, roads become impassable, and the great clean silence of the snow deepens into winter, Katri sets her accounting and housekeeping skills to work. Evening after evening after she has finished the housework, she sorts through Anna's chaotic bureau, looking for savings like a hound on the trail. Anna shrugs. Her parents had taught her to scorn money as proper topic of conversation. "Really," snorts Katri..."without money a person's thinking gets narrow. It shrivels!" But the bunnies, the work of Anna's feckless mind, are the real source of their modest wealth. Katri dismisses Anna's unwillingness to say No to childrens' letters as sentimental social conscience. Anna goes to bed and pulls the coverlet over her head.

Katri has the dour honesty and determination of the home-grown economist, but Anna has "the great, persuasive power of monomania, of being able to see and embrace a single idea, of being interested in one thing only..." They are rude to one another. Mats and the dog become as bones to quarrel over, and yet neither of the women is quite sensitive enough to see it. But who could not pity the peeler of another's conscience?

Tove Jansson was a writer's writer, and could no more tolerate a cliché than she could have drawn flowers on bunnies (although she did spend a third of her life writing and illustrating childrens' books). THE TRUE DECIEVER almost eludes the reader, and, in fact, it almost eluded Tove Jansson. She admitted finding the book extremely difficult to write, perhaps because it may bear a close comparison with her own life.

This beautifully written novel, with its elegantly economical prose, its gentle humour, its wonderful descriptions of the Scandinavian winter, and its vivid characters, is worth any literary prize, and is worthy of any proud bookshelf. As Ruth Rendell says on the cover, "the characters still haunt me." It also has a very interesting ten page introduction by Ali Smith.

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in 35 languages. However, from 1968, she turned her attention to writing for adults. She wrote the classic, THE SUMMER BOOK and A WINTER BOOK: SELECTED STORIES, both published by Sort of Books.


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