While descriptions of troubled parent-child relationships are common in novels, storybook grandparents and their grandchildren usually come out much better. With the exception of Roald Dahl, most writers play up the positives. But ignoring the differences in lifestyle brilliantly described by Shaw in his preface to Misalliance can also be a problem, particularly when both parties are forced to spend much time together.
The great Finnish writer Tove Jansson, who died two years ago, is an exception. In The Summer Book, she details the highs and lows when a grandmother looks after her six-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, during a long holiday on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. There is a father, but he never says a word. The mother has recently died, and much of the book describes how the 85-year-old artist helps Sophia come to terms with her grief. This she does obliquely, often through terse interjections but, best of all, by joining in with captivating games.
Grandmother and Sophia crawl through forests, construct model villages, carve faces on trees, make up songs and even commit a modest act of breaking and entering. Very occasionally, the games go sour, ending with Sophia shouting at a grandmother too exhausted to fight back. But generally they make an excellent team.
First published in 1972, and considered a classic in Scandinavia, this book was written the year after the author's own beloved mother died. There was also a real niece named Sophia, who now lives in the house where she spent so much time with her wonderful aunt. Photographs show them looking happy and relaxed but thoughtful. The same could be said of this book - now brilliantly translated, and calling out to be read.