“I have gradually learned that everyone, absolutely everyone of every size, is out to get something. People want things. It comes to them naturally. Of course they get more skilful with age, and they’re no longer so disarmingly obvious, but the goal doesn’t change.”
Set in a small, remote village during a bleak and cold Finnish winter, The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, is a suspenseful and unsettling story about the lies that we tell ourselves and to others. It’s a fascinating character study of two women, with very different outlooks on life, and the complex relationship that develops between them.
Katri Kling, a young woman with striking yellow eyes and a gift for mathematics, is an outsider in the local village because of her brutally honest and forthright way of interacting with the other residents of the village. She is fiercely protective of her younger brother Mats, who is obsessed with adventure stories, particularly sea adventures, and Katri is determined to provide him with financial security and fulfil one of his biggest dreams. Anna Aemelin is a privileged and eccentric illustrator of children’s books, who lives alone in a house on the outskirts of the village that she inherited from her parents. She is very reclusive, rarely leaves the house and gets all her supplies delivered, so she seems rather oblivious and naive of the outside world.
The book is an excellent example of minimalistic writing, and Jansson is incredible at building suspense. Not a word is wasted, and you are never quite sure who you can trust or who is the “True Deceiver” in this story. Jansson’s descriptions of the winter landscape are so evocative that the bleak setting becomes an integral part of the narrative. The smallest actions and simplest exchanges between the characters are infused with tension. On a fundamental level, Katri and Anna represent two opposing worldviews. Katri seems to believe in objective truth, even though her pursuit of it often involves deceit, while Anna feels comfortable leading a life that is full of “white” lies. Essentially, both of these women have developed opposing strategies of coping with their isolation and the difficulties of everyday life. Their interactions provoke a change in both women as they are forced to adapt to the flaws of each other and recognise that their perceptions of themselves are crumbling and transforming.
It’s a subtle and disquieting character study of two unusual, very interesting women. This was my first adult book by Jansson, and I was very impressed.