Jonna and Mari are artists. They live together, sort of, and have for twenty or thirty years. I say sort of because their apartments are at opposite ends of the top floor of an old building, connected by an empty attic space. When they are working, they stay in their own homes. When they aren’t working, they spend their time in Jonna’s apartment watching American movies (Fair Play is set in Finland) and avoiding the world or in a small cabin owned by Mari on a small island with no other inhabitants, still avoiding the world. Sometimes, they travel, taking long trips to other countries.
Occasionally, they have visitors or meet new people who they seem to attach themselves to rather than become friends with. Whilst excited by the new additions, each time it seems to upset the balance of their lives, the routine of their non-routine world. There is Mari’s old boyfriend for example, who says he’s going to come camping on the island then doesn’t show up, and the young artist Jonna befriends and feeds food normally set aside for Mari until one day she doesn’t turn up anymore and Mari, who had felt like she no longer belonged, is welcome into the flat again.
Told in short chapters that are linear timewise but do not necessarily follow each other immediately, Fair Play gives snapshots into lives less ordinary than mine. As an outsider, getting a glimpse of this world, I struggled to understand it and get a real sense of time and place. The seeming lack of direction, the misunderstandings that were never discussed – I wondered whether I was missing something and kept going back on myself. Then I read that Fair Play was based on Tove Jansson’s own long-term relationship and, knowing this, I started to feel like I was getting not so much a work of fiction but a glimpse of her real life and started enjoying it more as a result (though not sure why, perhaps I was no longer looking for a big idea?).
With this in mind, I found it interesting though not compelling and I did like the style of writing. It was sparse and simple and seemed (at least to my untrained eye) well translated. I think the problem was I wanted more, I’m just not sure more of what. More of a story maybe and definitely more pages – this was billed as a novel but was only 84 pages long. When it ended I felt disappointed and slightly cheated. Which is a shame because I don’t think this was a bad book and I think other people would really like it. It just wasn’t for me.