Moominvalley in November is the ninth and last novel in Finnish author Tove Jansson’s beloved series about the Moomin family. The Swedish-language original Sent i november was published in 1970; the English translation by Kingsley Hart in 1971. This is a book I always return to for its melancholy tone, warm humour and psychological insight.
Most of the Moomin books follow the joyful summer adventures of the Moomins – roundish and friendly looking fairytale creatures with hippopotamus-like snouts. Although darker undercurrents are to be found in all the books, Moominvalley in November is notably more sombre in tone and strongly built on the inner conflicts of its characters. Jansson’s shift to a more introspective approach is already evident in the previous book of the series, Moominpappa at Sea, in which Moominpappa has grown disillusioned with life in the idyllic Moominvalley. Together with his family – his wife Moominmamma, their son Moomintroll and their adopted daughter Little My – Moominpappa embarks on a sea voyage, both in search of a distant lighthouse and a deeper understanding of nature.
The story of Moominvalley in November takes place simultaneously with the sea voyage of the previous book, meaning that the Moomins figure here only through their absence. Instead, the novel focuses on six visitors to the Moominvalley who, to their great surprise, find the Moomin house empty and deserted.
Each of the visitors is a loner of sorts. We have Hemulen, who wakes up one morning wishing ‘he had been someone he didn’t know.’ When Hemulen tries to find pleasant thoughts ‘to drive away his morning melancholy’, he remembers Moominvalley and the happy family he once visited. We also have Toft, a small and shy orphan, who lives in Hemulen’s docked boat. Longing for a family of his own, Toft dreams on and on about the Moomins, imagining their happy life in great detail although he has never met them. One day Toft notices that the valley of his imagination is getting hazy, the details blurred, so he decides to visit the Moomins for real.
We have Fillyjonk, who realizes that she has too much china in her cupboards for just one Fillyjonk and concludes that she needs to ‘see people.’ Then there is ‘frightfully old’ and very forgetful Grandpa-Grumble who is sick and tired of his visiting relatives and also certain that the very same relatives are having secret parties to which he never gets invited. Grandpa-Grumble decides to forget that he had any relatives to begin with and he, too, heads off to Moominvalley.
We have Snufkin, Moomintroll’s best friend who has left Moominvalley to go south for the winter. When Snufkin tries to compose a song with his mouth organ, however, he realizes that there are five bars missing, bars that can only be found in Moominvalley. Finally, there is Mymble, who has come to visit her sister Little My.
When the characters meet each other in the Moomin house, many comical misunderstandings and clashes follow. Here, Jansson’s trademark humor is intertwined with notes of melancholy, as every nook and cranny of the house reminds us of the absent Moomin family and their happy life – coffee times on the sunny veranda, trips to the lovely bathing hut at the nearby beach. Now there are autumn leaves on the ground and pitch-black darkness behind the windows at night. The darkness, however, is depicted not so much as frightening as fascinating:
Fillyjonk stood on the steps and listened to the darkness. Snufkin was playing in his tent, a beautiful, vague tune. […] She listened breathlessly. She forgot all the awful things; tall and thin, she was silhouetted against the lighted kitchen, an easy prey to all the lurking dangers of the night. But nothing happened.
As the story progresses, the characters make new discoveries about their lives, and one after the other they return to their homes. Only the small orphan Toft is left behind. He, too, has realized something important: to find a family, he has to abandon his idealized image of the Moomins. At this point, he has found the ‘forest of anger’ – a place ’where Moominmamma had walked when she was tired and cross and disappointed and wanted to be on her own.’ Realizing that you cannot and should not be cheerful all the time, Toft is now ready to meet the Moomins in person: we see little Toft looking out to sea, waiting to catch the first glimpse of ‘the storm-lantern Moominpappa had hung up at the top of the mast.’