As well as being Philip Larkin's birthday (he'd have been a mere 87), today is also the anniversary of the birth, in 1914, of the extraordinary Tove Jansson, whose work across so many fields avoids any easy classification, except perhaps as 'Finnish'. I didn't realise quite how good a writer she was until I read The Summer Book, her haunting novel about a single summer spent on one of those tiny islands in the Gulf to which Finns love to escape. An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter talk and play, have small adventures and small fallings-out, and do the things that pass a long summer, all in the shadow of an unspoken fact - the death of the child's mother, the grandmother's daughter. Unsentimental, brusque even, and often quite funny, it creates a self-contained world that entirely convinces - partly because of Jansson's gift for sharp close observation - and casts a spell that is all its own.
More recently I read Moomin Valley In November, and that too is an extraordinary book - and, like The Summer Book, one permeated by grief. The characters are drawn to the valley by memories of good times they've had with the Moomin family - but the Moomins are gone, leaving the characters to play out their own obsessions, fears and fantasies, and hope against hope that the Moomins will return. A strange, melancholy book, it is a very far cry from the earlier Moomin adventures, and if those are the only Moomins you know, I'd recommend looking this one out. Or even if you've never read Tove Jansson at all.