Review: The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tova Jannson

I am very excited whenever I have the opportunity to receive an advanced reader’s copy of a book from the New York Review of Books Classics collection.  All of these stories were originally written in Swedish and this collection of short stories is the first English edition of Tova Jannson’s stories.

My Review:

The Woman Who Borrowed MemoriesThis collection of short stories is divided into four sections, the first of which is entitled “The Listener” and was originally published in 1971.  I found the stories in this part of the collection to have a dream-like, almost surreal quality to them.  In the story that is the title to the collection, “The Listener”, a woman who is called Aunt Gerda has always been a great listener to her family.  She listens intently to all of their stories and woes and when she is about fifty-five years old her personality starts to change.  She seems to forget names and people and starts to spend a lot of time by herself.

Aunt Gerda begins one day to map out, in great detail, a family tree and all of the relationship dynamics within the family. Then she includes on her map, through a code of colors, all of the secrets that various family members have told her over the years.  I found this story, and the others in the first part of the collection, to take a surprising twist.  This is not a sad tale about a woman who is in the early signs of Alzheimer’s but instead it shows that buried somewhere deep inside her sub conscience are all of the stories which family members have confided to Aunt Gerda over the years.  These stories have become a part of who she is.

One of my other favorite stories in the collection is entitled “A Leading Role.”  A woman named Maria has been giving the leading role in a play which is her first big part in her theater career.  But Maria doesn’t like the part she is given because she believes that the middle-aged woman she is required to play is “insignificant and anxious” and completely devoid of any personality.

One weekend Maria is at her lake house and is terribly bored due to a lack of company.  She decides it would be a great idea to invite her cousin Frida to spend some time with her because Frida has the same personality traits of the role she is to play in her major theater debut.  When Frida visits she is nervous, soft-spoken and plain.

Over the course of several conversations Maria completely changes her opinion of Frida and as a result begins to embrace her new part in the play.  This story reminds us that a book cannot be judged by it’s cover and we never truly know a person unless we spend some time engaging them in meaningful conversations.

Overall, I thought this was a remarkable translation of Jannson’s works and it is unfortunate that they have not been translated into English until now.  The New York Review of Books has published yet another wonderful collection of interesting stories.



About The Author:
Tove Jannson was born and died in Helsinki, Finland. As a Finnish citizen whose mother tongue was Swedish, she was part of the Swedish-speaking Finns minority. Thus, all her books were originally written in Swedish.

Although known first and foremost as an author, Tove Jansson considered her careers as author and painter to be of equal importance.

Tove Jansson wrote and illustrated her first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945), during World War II. She said later that the war had depressed her, and she had wanted to write something naive and innocent. Besides the Moomin novels and short stories, Tove Jansson also wrote and illustrated four original and highly popular picture books.  Jansson’s Moomin books have been translated into 33 languages.

The New York Review of Books Classics:
For a complete list of titles that are published by the NYRB please visit:

I have reviewed several of their titles on this site, including Journey By Moonlight, Agostino, Conversations With Beethoven, The Mad and The Bad, and Augustus.




Filed under Classics, New York Review of Books, Short Stories, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Review: The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tova Jannson

  1. When I was in London over the summer I saw a shop devoted to Moominland. I remembered a group of girls in elementary school who were diehard Moomin fans but I’d never read the series. I thought it would be fun this winter to explore Jansson’s work. Do you ever do that – go back to a childhood series and visit old friends?

    Anyway, I found this review so timely because I didn’t know she wrote other works. Super excited to read this….as I usually am with the books you review 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s funny because the books I always go back to are not childhood ones per se, but the ones I read it high school. Last winter I reread a lot of Austen, Jane Eyre and even Rebecca and fell in love with them all over again as an adult.

    This is my first Jannson read and I really enjoyed it. Highly recommend. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!


  3. Nice intro to this book via two of its stories. I’m interested to read it, along with some of her Moomin books. Looks like a great addition to my Northern Lights TBR list! Thanks 🙂


  4. All of the stories were good, it was hard to choose which ones to talk about!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love your blog but I don’t read books but I can read


  6. I’m reading the stories now. They are something else. And it’s funny, I’m not sure I like them…. but I think I mean to say that none of the stories make me feel good. They definitely make me feel: reading them, I feel cold from the descriptions of a Finnish winter. I feel sadness, loneliness, confusion, desperation. The writing is gorgeous and I am pulled into the tale completely.

    That’s my report thus far: beautiful stories. With a beautiful sadness.


  7. They do not give you a warm feeling at all. I think I am drawn to tragic stories, so that’s why I liked them so much 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s