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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The True Deceiver

Tove Jansson

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To purchase The True Deceiver

Title: The True Deceiver
Author: Tove Jansson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The True Deceiver - US
The True Deceiver - UK
The True Deceiver - Canada
L'honnête tricheuse - France
Die ehrliche Betrügerin - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Den ärliga bedragaren
  • Translated by Thomas Teal
  • With an Introduction by Ali Smith

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Our Assessment:

A- : simple yet fascinating and unsettling characters-study,

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A+ 2/11/2009 Adrian Turpin
The Guardian A 12/12/2009 Ursula K. Le Guin
The Independent . 6/11/2009 Emma Hagestadt
The Times A 12/12/2009 Susan Hill

  Review Consensus:

  Strange but impressive

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jansson crafts an unsentimental -- often mischievous -- novel of ideas that asks whether it is better to be kind than to be truthful, especially for an artist." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "It is prose of the very highest order; it is pure prose. Through its quiet clarity we see unreachable depths, threatening darkness, promised treasures. The sentences are beautiful in structure, movement and cadence. They have inevitable rightness. And this is a translation ! (...) The unfolding of their story through vivid contrast and interplay of truthfulness and deceit, purity and complexity, ice and thaw, winter and spring, makes the most beautiful and satisfying novel I have read this year." - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian

  • "(A) delightfully dark winter's tale. (...) Although Jansson's book isn't a thriller, there's a tension to the prose which suggests that blood might be spilt." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "This is a very strange novel: brilliant, haunting, wholly memorable. (...) The house, the landscape, the cold and the loneliness haunt in the reading and afterwards, their atmosphere and chill linger to intrigue, puzzle and terrify. A strange novel indeed." - Susan Hill, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Katri Kling is the The True Deceiver of the title (which doesn't quite capture the original, Den ärliga bedragaren), a straight arrow whose forthrightness most of those in the small community she lives in find disconcerting. She is twenty-five, and lives with her brother Mats, who is ten years younger, and a dog that she refuses to even give a name, the only two creatures she seems to care in the least about. She's good at maths -- "her heart was riddled with numbers" --, and so people do come to her with accounting matters.
       But she could also offer:

unambiguous solutions to knotty problems requiring a different kind of arithmetic.
       Her advice is helpful -- and yet ... :
Katri's advice was widely discussed in the village and struck people as correct and very astute. What made it so effective, perhaps, was that she worked on the assumption that every household was naturally hostile towards its neighbours. But people's sessions with Katri were often followed by an odd sense of shame, which was hard to understand, since she was always fair.
       Katri is completely trustworthy, in part because she acts without self-interest, and always lays all her cards on the table. For her there is no reason why everything shouldn't be completely transparent. It is only when she acts out of self-interest, and practises some deception of her own, that her worldview is upset. (In fact she acts for Mats, the only person she really cares about.)
       The most prominent local is the artist Anna Aemelin. A kindly older woman, she is obsessed with a single thing:
the woods, the forest floor. Anna Aemelin could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle. Her watercolours were small and implacably naturalistic, and they were as pretty as the springy blanket of mosses and delicate plants that a person walking across in a dense forest but seldom really observes. Anna Aemelin made people see. They saw and recalled the essence of the forest, and, for a moment, experienced a vague yearning that felt pleasant and hopeful. It was a shame that Anna spoiled her picture by putting rabbits in them, that is to say, Mama, Papa and Baby Bunny. Moreover, the fact that she drew little flowers on the rabbits dispelled much of the deep-forest mystique.
       Anna's pictures are used to illustrate children's books, and she's done very well with them -- but the contrast of the forest-floor scenes and the beflowered rabbits is striking: she consistently refuses to present true-to-life pictures, offering instead her own kind of deception.
       When the book opens it is deepest winter, everything buried under snow and frozen over. Anna is in a state of artistic hibernation, waiting until the ground is free again before turning back to her painting. And Katri has a plan, wanting to insinuate herself -- and Mats -- into the old woman's life (and house), and take some advantage of her.
       Mats dreams of a boat, and Katri wants to raise the funds to make his dream possible.
       The dance between the two women begins slowly -- though it is Anna who is the more forthright in admitting to Katri:
I've never met anyone so terribly -- and I use the word in the sense of frightening -- so terribly honest.
       And Anna also tells her early on: "I trust you" -- while suspicious Katri doesn't believe anyone can be trusted.
       Katri and Mats do move into Anna's large house, and Katri helps bring many of Anna's affairs into order -- but Katri always acts on her own initiative. Often Anna isn't quite so sure that she wants these things taken care of in this way (though she has to admit that Katri is both efficient and helps her earn considerably more money).
       Mats and the old lady also get along well, sharing a love of reading adventure tales, but it remains an odd household -- complete with the dog that Anna can never get used to.
       As Mats getting a boat becomes a stronger possibility, Katri finds her control only extends so far. Even as she takes on more duties and seems to come to understand Anna even better, her knowledge remains, in a way, superficial. With Anna's permission, she tries her hand at helping Anna answer the many letters children write to the famous bunny-author:
Easily and skilfully, she reproduced Anna's uncertainty and her awkward kindness getting lost in needless small talk.
       But Katri remains incapable of some things -- including, as Anna tells her:
You don't know how to play -- that's precisely the problem.
       The two of them are involved in a sort of game, and it takes some unexpected turns. A fascinating psychological drama unfolds, and it's all the more effective because of Jansson's simple, understated style and the conditions she evokes -- the cold, the snow. Katri is a disturbing figure, yet in Anna she meets an unexpected match, someone entirely different that she cannot get complete grasp of.
       The story unfolds in an almost leisurely manner in this short book, yet it is astonishingly rich. It's also downright creepy, from Katri's implacability to that nameless dog to the way of disposing unwanted possessions by leaving them on the ice, set to sink away when it melts.
       Very well written, The True Deceiver is an atmospheric and unsettling story (made more unsettling by the very occasional shift from an omniscient narrator to Katri's first-person account). Even without any clear resolution, it is very satisfying. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2010

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The True Deceiver: Reviews: Tove Jansson: Other books by Tove Jansson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish-writing Finnish author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known for her 'Moomin' stories.

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