Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Summer as Character || Mini Reviews

A few weeks ago I found myself reading two books with the word summer in the title back to back. They couldn't be more different - one is a debut thriller, the other a work of literary fiction from an established author - but I was struck by the role summer played in both. Summer, and heat waves in particular, acts as a crucible or catalyst in many novels (having read it this year, I'm reminded of Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave). These two novels take summer as their setting and weave tales that are inextricably linked to the season; one because of the heat, the other because of the school summer break.    

The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan

In the blistering heat of Western Texas, Jasper Curtis returns home to live with his sister and her two daughters after ten years in prison. Jasper says he's done with trouble, but the town can't forget what he did.

I thought I'd like this novel when I first read the synopsis, but I'm surprised at quite how absorbed - almost addicted - I was. Donal Ryan's quote there on the front cover sums it's up pretty well, this novel is gripping, dark and compelling. The darkness that presides over it is thick with heat and uncertainty. I found myself losing sight of what's right and what's wrong the further I was led into the story and into Jasper's life.

The heat is an important part of this novel. It's oppressiveness is felt throughout and reading it I could almost feel the sun beating down on me, feel the panic of confinement and the discomfort of the thick air.

This is a novel that tips you upside down and makes you question your long held beliefs. Once it's done that, Ronan hits you with the climactic scene. I was surprised at how it played out, yet I was in awe of Ronan's gentle touch. Her writing is detailed, lyrical and tense. I turned those final pages with my heart in my mouth, but it never felt overdone or sensationalised. Her understanding of humanity and particularly of the need for revenge is truly something.

The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson

This novel is written from the perspective of Mark, a school boy who is busy spending his summer wandering with his dog and making up stories when he comes across a rather unusual man in the woods. This man is Aubrey Hillyard, a writer working on an ominous science fiction novel, who has been shunned by village society for reasons unknown to Mark. They strike up an unusual friendship based on storytelling, whilst the villagers plot to drive Aubrey out.

This book is set in 1950s England, where the shadow of the Second World War still looms. It's quite different from The Last Days of Summer in a number of ways, but it is equally as unsettling and memorable. I was struck particularly by how intricate the book became considering that the plot was relatively simple. What made it intricate was the sheer number of themes and issues it addresses, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. It explores things such as friendship and childhood, betrayal and rebellion, and yet it never feels overdone. Check back tomorrow to hear more about this as I was lucky enough to arrange a Q&A with James Wilson.

Summer here is like a character in a play. It's there to move things along and to instigate various actions, but it has a start and an end point which brackets the novel. There isn't so much a sense of oppressive heat here, rather the tension comes partly from the time constraints as the days before term restarts (and reality hits), slowly fall away. On a slightly more metaphorical level the passing summer also reflects Mark's childhood and the passing off his innocence as he gets more and more embroiled in Aubrey's world.

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these novels and I've found it so interesting to reflect back on them in a slightly different way. The more I think about it, the more I realise how important the season is to a work of fiction. It can completely change the tone and tensions of a novel - I wonder how either of these would play out in the winter. Quite differently, I suppose.

Have you ever been struck by the role the season plays in a novel?

Thank you to the publishers for providing me with these novels for review. All opinions my own as per.


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