Friday, August 19, 2011

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson is a Swedish/Finnish lesbian author who wrote and illustrated books for both adults and children. I picked up Fair Play (at Audrey's Books in Edmonton) for two reasons: I was excited to see something new (to me) by Jansson and I'll read anything with an introduction by Ali Smith.

Fair Play is a collection of short stories that together form a novel. It's about a long-term loving relationship between two artists, a writer/illustrator named Mari and a photographer/artist named Jonna. As Ali Smith points out in her introduction, these characters are clearly autobiographical. Jansson's lifelong partner and travelling companion, Tuulikki Pietila was a graphic artist and the women spent over 40 years together.

In the stories, Mari and Jonna deal with ordinary things like jealousy, disappointment and irritation. Their unfailing willingness to sort things out and the trust that they will succeed are very appealing qualities. Their love is so obviously rock-solid. I was intrigued that the two women have connected, yet separate, living spaces. (Sort of like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, but without the histrionics.)

Some of the stories are also set on a tiny island where Mari and Jonna spend summers in a cabin. "The room had four windows because the sea was equally beautiful in all directions." Jansson's writing (translated by Thomas Teal) is as light and airy as the seaside cabin. Each word seems to fit exactly right, shipshape and freshly scrubbed. Jansson makes it look so easy.

Fair Play reminded me of a story-cycle I read years ago, The Riverhouse Stories by Andrea Carlisle, not only because they are both about the life of a lesbian couple, but especially for the gentleness, kindness and fable-like quality these books share. Fair Play is possibly the best book I've read so far this year.

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