“Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where the dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual.”
My first thought after I completed this was, ‘how do I describe this book?’ I found it a bit of a struggle to pinpoint the exact plot of the book. After a first few attempts, I realized the whole point of the book was to leave the reader with very few answers and more questions.
This was my introduction to Tove Jansson’s books. The True Deceiver is about two women, both outcasts from the society. There’s Katri Kling, who stays with her brother, Mat, above the grocery store. She is brutally honest, with no attempt to sugar-coat her words or behavior to meet the social norms. This, along with a head for Maths, makes her the go-to person for all advise seeking – regarding laws, numbers, disputes with neighbors. Yet, the very same nature, leads her to being shunned by everyone (not that she minds) and sometimes the subject of ridicule (referred to as the ‘witch’ by kids). The only matter of significance to Katri is securing her beloved little brother’s future.
Then there’s Anna Aemlin, a rich, reclusive and eccentric illustrator of children’s books. Like Katri, she is an outcast and a mystery to the rest of the villagers. The setting is a Finnish village in the middle of winter. The story really begins as Katri fakes a break-in into Anna’s house, which convinces Anna to take Katri and her brother in, to take care of the house.
The first thing that struck me was the author’s description of winter. Living in Dubai, with the weather moving from very hot to hot, I could still feel the cold described in the book. It also, like all good books do, made me yearn for this Finnish village I had never heard of before.
The other thing that struck me was the quietness of the book. There are no big moments, no big shockers. The silence of the book is almost disquieting because I kept on waiting for something big to happen.
As the relationship between the two women develops, often fraught with tension, as each tries to control the other unsuccessfully, you are left wondering if either of them actually wins – you are not sure who is ‘The True Deceiver’ of the two.
Another theme is that of trust and paranoia. As Katri brings comfortably oblivious Anna’s attention to how the various villagers have been cheating her, we see Anna change to an increasingly distrustful person. Katri sees to loom large over Anna, taking over her personal life, arranging documents, and giving unwanted advise on finance and ‘fan’ letters. At first, one may see Anna as the ‘victim’, but is she?
So, what is this book about then? I am still not sure. I believe that there are layers that I haven’t yet unraveled.
(Caspar David Friedrich, Winterlandschaft. National Gallery, London.)