The short of it is that this is the best book I've read in at least a year, maybe longer. The story of a young girl, Sophia, spending the summer on a small island in Finland. Like the setting of her famous Moomin books, this book's island is based on the one where Jansson spend 30 summers.
The writing is poetry. One review said, "[Jansson's] writing is all magical deception, her sentences simple and loaded; the novel reads like looking through clear water and seeing, suddenly, the depth." Exactly. It's amazing how such clear, simple prose can hold so much meaning. The main event that pervades this particular summer is the death of Sophia's mother:
"Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead."
It's the only time the death is mentioned, but you feel it in every chapter, you see how the family is coping with it, absorbing it, and moving forward.
The relationship between the young girl, Sophia, and her grandmother is lovely; they are so close they can get mad at one another and shout and it's fine because they are deeply, irretrievably connected. It's safe to show one another their true selves. They share the feeling of needing to escape the confines of Sophia's father, who naturally worries about them both taking unsafe risks. They each indulge in small rebellions.
Here is a sample. (Note: In a previous chapter, Sophia takes to saying "bloody" all the time and she and her grandmother discuss it. It becomes kind of a joke.]:
The channel marker was a high wall of well-spaced horizontal planks, like a section of picket fence turned on its side...The distance from one plank to the next was so great that Sophia's legs just barely reached, and after each step her knees began to shake--not much, just enough so that she had to wait until they stopped. Then came the next rung. Sophia had made it almost to the top before Grandmother saw her. Grandmother realized right away that she mustn't scream. She would have to wait for the child to come back down. It wasn't dangerous. Children have a lot of ape in them; they're good climbers and never fall unless they're startled.
Sophia was climbing very slowly now, with long pauses between steps. Grandmother could see she was scared. The old woman stood up too quickly. Her walking stick rolled down into the pool, and the whole rock became an uncertain, hostile surface, arching and twisting in front of her. Sophia took another step.
"You're doing fine," Grandmother called. "You're almost there!"
Sophia took another step. She got her hands over the topmost plank and didn't move.
"Now come back down here," Grandmother said.
But the child didn't move. It was so hot in the sun that the channel marker shimmered and quaked in the waves.
"Sophia!" Grandmother called. "My stick fell down in the pool and I can't walk." She waited and then called again, "It's bloody awful, do you hear me? My balance is bloody awful today, and I've got to have my cane!"
Sophia started down. She moved steadily, one step at a time.
Damned child, Grandmother thought. Confounded children. But that's what happens when people won't let you do anything fun. The people who are old enough.
Sophia was back down on the rock. She waded out into the pool for the stick and handed it to Grandmother without looking at her.
"You're a very good climber," said Grandmother sternly. "And brave, too, because I could see you were scared. Shall I tell him about it? Or shouldn't I?"
Sophia shrugged one shoulder and looked at her grandmother. "I guess maybe not," she said. "But you can tell it on your deathbed so it doesn't go to waste."
"That's a bloody good idea," Grandmother said. She walked off across the rock and sat down beside the air mattress, just outside the shade of the violet parasol.
My favorite chapters are the one in which they create a miniature Venice in a marsh pool, including a palace in which a family lives; and the one one in which Grandmother and Sophia trespass on a neighbor's island.