A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

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A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set in the land of the midnight sun, this is a haunting recollection of a young girls's experiences of a summer of tragedy. It's compellingly told, although the narrative device used puts a slightly unsatisfying level of distance between events.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 9780224061780

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A Summer of Drowning is a book in which for much of the time not a lot happens - but always spookily. Set on the Norwegian island of Kvaløya in the Arctic Circle, the story is narrated by Liv who is now 28 but who recalls events of a summer when she was 18. Liv resides with her artist mother in, if not isolation, then certainly seclusion. The book makes much of the midsummer madness that 24 hour daylight induces and in that respect it is wholly successful. It aims for a dream-like and timeless quality which it largely achieves.

Part of the problem for me was Liv herself. She's an odd character and I never really warmed to her. It occurred to me very early on in the book that there's something not right about her - but what? And did that deserve sympathy or just plain irritation? She makes out that her location is part of her reason for avoiding people, but it seems more than that. She has just finished school but has no friends, apart from an old man, Kyrre Opdahl, who regales her with mythical stories. She repeats herself, well, repeatedly. Partly this is down to the fact that she is exploring her feelings a decade ago so often almost argues with herself about how she felt. The problem I had with this is that it slows down any action and makes it all one-paced.

Yet, while this is a little irritating, what it effectively does very well is to create a level of tension and spookiness to the whole thing. The cover blurb identifies that two brothers died that summer, one was in Liv's class at school and one was his younger brother, but if this leads to you expect a mystery type novel, it's far from that. It's much more mysterious which is part of its charm and it is oddly compelling, but also part of what I found slightly irritating about it.

Burnside sets up a series of mysterious events in Liv's nightmare summer. The two brothers drown, and other characters disappear. Liv is never a direct witness to these events although she comes close. Indeed, she is constantly on the edge of any action that does happen, either by chance or by choice.

The book is split into just three chapters which effectively mirrors the seemingly unending white nights of an Arctic summer and timelessness is a theme throughout the book. So too is observation, either direct as in Liv's habit of spying on the temporary inhabitants of the neighboring lodge or in terms of interpretation through her mother's art. This is where the notion of Kyrre Opdahl's fables and myths, which Liv gets caught up in, comes in - to what extent are they are to be taken literally or are just ways of explaining the unexplained? In particular here, we are told of the huldra a beautiful girl who lures young men to their death.

It's certainly not a comfortable read, but I suspect that is largely the author's intention. There's no doubt that it's beautifully constructed and it has a haunting feel to it but ultimately I found it to be less satisfying than I wanted it to be. For all Liv's retrospection, she doesn't really come up with anything concrete or indeed convincing.

If Liv draws you into her story and her character, then I suspect you would enjoy this book rather more than I did. But the dreamlike effect where you feel that reality and events are just a touch away but unobtainable ran though to Liv herself for me. I wanted to like her and find her interesting, but I didn't. I found her to be strangely naive and immature even allowing for her remote upbringing. The influence of Kyrre Opdahl on her is suggested and yet she doesn't spend much time with him. And in a world where there is television, computers, schools and a nearby airport, the death of two young boys and disappearance of several others seems to spark no interest in either the community or the police. But then, perhaps I'm trying to force reality onto Burnside's dream world. Yet I cannot deny that it is compellingly told and evocative. My sense was a story that wanted to speed up at times but Liv's narration wouldn't let it.

Our thanks to the kind people at Jonathan Cape for sending us this Costa Prize-nominated book.

For more atmospheric reads then Nightwoods by Charles Frazier is well worth checking out.

Buy A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside at Amazon.com.

Booklists.jpg A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside is in the Costa Prize 2011.


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