A light in the darkness

Sophia Jansson with Signe Hammarsten (circa 1968 image: Margareta Strömstedt)

Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)

Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?

I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.

While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.

We are introduced to each character in turn in the opening chapters: Snufkin, Toft, Fillyjonk, a Hemulen, Grandpa-Grumble, and Mymble, Snufkin’s half-sister. They make their ways to the Moomin house for different reasons — to recall a forgotten five bars of music, to learn how to sail, to find ‘a Happy Family’, to see the fishes in a brook, to visit an adopted sister, or simply because the mood takes one. These are the ulterior motives; but as the story develops and the visitors meet up and stay in the valley, one begins to question whether these are the real reasons.

Of course they all have unspoken fears and obsessions and yearnings for being there, but they won’t realise that at first because they have to get along with each other, eating together, not talking at cross purposes, devising entertainments for mutual amusement. And maybe, just maybe, they will come to find what they’ve each come looking for before they depart back to their homes.

Nummulite fossil

There are so many lingering images after reading this that it’s hard to refrain from listing them all. There’s the shadow play devised by the Fillyjonk with the silhouette of the Moomin family sailing (as they were in the preceding novel Moominpappa at Sea); Grandpa-Grumble searching for the hibernating Ancestor and losing the crucial message from the Moomins; the orphan Toft imagining a Creature born from electrical lightning, growing and creeping around the house, based on his confused reading about protozoic nummulites. The lenticular nummulite fossils when sectioned appear as spiral coils, a perfect symbol for Jansson’s narrative and the characters’ journeys to Moominvalley.

Ultimately it is the young Toft who remains when the others have gone, aching for the maternal figure of Moominmamma, looking out for the returning boat carrying the Moomins and Little My back home, their passage signalled by the storm lantern on the mast, a light in the darkness.

Oh what is life? ’tis nothing but a dream,
A vast and enigmatic flowing stream…


I ignored advice and went for this title before others in the series, but don’t regret it at all: the next book in my Tove Trove reading will be Finn Family Moomintroll. Tove Jansson was born on 9th August 1914

9th August 2020 is also designated Book Lovers Day; and August is Women in Translation Month

24 thoughts on “A light in the darkness

  1. This does sound beautiful, a little melancholy perhaps, but beautiful. I’m wondering whether to read this in September which would be fitting but may not be good for my mood. Getting hold of a copy just in case might be the way forward!

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    1. I didn’t want to give the impression this was a miserable read, Anne, and in fact anybody not knowing the background may well accept this as a wistful Moomin story, only with the family in the background sailing the seas and very probably on their way home, to be eventually greeted by Toft.

      An innocent reader — I’m guessing — would love the interactions of the six who’d made their way to the house, and how the way they rub along reveals their individual characters and idiosyncrasies. Though advised to try the earlier novels in the series first I wasn’t at all depressed by this, and I don’t think you’d be either!

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      1. Thank you Chris. You’ve convinced me and I am now suitably intrigued. To be honest it was the theme’s links to Jansson’s mother that troubled me but her writing does contain an appealing honesty and I will definitely buy a copy. I’ll let you know what I think.

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  2. I read all the Moomins in order, fairly recently and for the first time – and they did indeed become more and more strange and melancholy as they went on. But I love them dearly – I think they have much to say to us, and are actually probably a little bit wasted on the young!! ;D

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    1. I could never understand, Kaggsy, why mature readers with life and experience under their belts waxed lyrical about the childish and seemingly innocent Moomin world: trolls were supposed to be these dangerous chthonic entities but here they were portrayed in an apparently whimsical, almost cartoonish, fashion.

      I admit I was completely mistaken — these are profound books. Perhaps I wouldn’t go as far as to say they’re wasted on the young, because if they work their magic at an early age who knows but that maturity will add the layers of wisdom and insights that I’m only now, belatedly, beginning to appreciate.

      But I’d be interested to know how young readers take these later titles, whether they recognise the latent melancholy or just delight in the characters.

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      1. I was the same until I read them – then I realised how much there was to them. I think the media image of soft and cuddly sometimes works against the Moomins. And no, not wasted on the right kind of young readers – I wish I’d not only encountered these when I was young, but had found them in time to share them with my own children. Like you, I wonder how deeply young readers engage with the later stories – if the books teach them that life is not always as lovely as we would like it to be, then that’s a valuable lesson.

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  3. I need to read more of the Moomins. I never read them as a child, although I was aware of them on some level, by the time this one was published I was reading ‘adult’ books – little did I know of the crossover nature of the best of children’s literature then…

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    1. I sometimes wish I didn’t have the prejudice I had then against the Moomins’ cutesy image, Annabel, but even though it has taken the urgings of a couple of bloggers — praise be to them! — I’m so grateful that it’s been late rather than never! Luckily I seem always to have been aware of the crossover nature you mention, so it hasn’t taken a lot of persuasion …

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  4. I found this book quite traumatic when I first read it as a child. I think it reflected the way Jansson was feeling at that point in her life – she was up to her ears with the Moomins by the late sixties / early seventies. They simply had to go! 😂

    You capture this moving novel quite beautifully, Chris.

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    1. Gosh, that must’ve been awful for you, Paula. The impression I got was that the Moomins and Little My were ‘out there’ sailing the briny rather than merely got rid off, and that they’d somehow become public domain in people’s thoughts. The Fillyjonk’s shadow show was the perfect symbol — a Finnish version of Plato’s cave shadows parable — and I loved the notion of the Moomins sailing on a sea of readers’ imaginations. I will get on to the rest of the series, and can’t wait to find out what happens in Moominpappa at Sea!

      But first, Finn Family Moomintroll beckons… Glad you liked my take on this. 😊

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  5. Pingback: TOVE TROVE: Reading the Books of Tove Jansson – Book Jotter

  6. I really enjoy following your explorations of Moominvalley, they make me crave a reread. I find it intriguing how this one is centred around the void left by the missing Moomin family. It is a great picture of loss, and perhaps also a hint to her adult fans that it was time to move on and stop pestering her about more and more Moomin books. I like how Toft, the child, was the only one still there when they returned.

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    1. I don’t think it’s too presumptive of me as a newbie fan to say so, but I think that psychologically Toft is Jansson’s inner child missing the maternal haven that the Moomins represent. The fact that we never witness the actual return home of the family is, as you say, her way of turning her back on the saga while allowing readers the freedom to indulge their imaginations. I’m definitely warmly anticipating further Moominvalley explorations, Johanna, and it may not be too long now!

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  7. At risk of repeating myself for a hundredth time, I absolutely love Moomins – ever since I read these books for the first time as a child. And it’s just as you say – every reader in every age will find something different in these books, but none of these interpretations is less valid than others.

    I always felt Moominvalley in November was melancholy, centred around loss, but also optimistic in its subtle way of showing how to deal with loss. All of these characters leave in the end, because they learned something about themselves and they were able to complete their journeys of mourning and self-knowledge. Toft stays because his yearning for a mother-figure cannot be overcome – and I cannot help but see Tove Jannson’s personal history here, and her own grief mingled with hope against all odds. Would he become another adopted child of the Moomin family?

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    1. I don’t mind you repeating yourself, Ola, Jansson doesn’t lose credibility with evangelists like yourself — the reverse, if anything — and as a late convert I will be doing the same as you!

      As for Toft becoming another adopted child, I can definitely see that happening, and now I can’t wait to properly meet Little My in due course. 😊

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  8. Chris, this is a beautiful review of a book I haven’t yet read but will be reading, in time. Like you I never encountered The Moomins as a child and although my daughter loved these books, we did not read them together. So I too came to them as an adult and I’m grateful for that. I’ve read a few this year – mindful of Paula’s Tove project – and I’m reading them in order. It’s been a while since I picked one up now; I seem to be drowning in books at the moment. But I’ll get back to them and I agree with everything you say about their profundity. It occurs to me that I’ve never discussed with my daughter how she felt about these books as a child. She still loves them now. She is hopefully – youngest son just spiked a temperature 😷 so waiting on results – coming to stay later this week. First time we’ve met up since March. The perfect opportunity for a Moomin chat!

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    1. I do hope your daughter and you do get to meet up, I know all about an enforced gap of not seeing your own kids and it gets so desperate. And a Moomin chat is something to look forward to!

      I’ve got Finn Family Moomintroll next — it’s what was on our indie book shop’s shelves — and I may be reading it sooner rather than later, particularly ideal as August is Women in Translation Month. I’m trying to discard many books I’m reading this last year or so (to make room for more, I suspect!) but Jansson’s works will be among the exceptions. So glad you enjoyed this review.

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