A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

DATE FINISHED: July 2nd, 2012 

RATED: **** (4.5)

SYNOPSIS:  Liv is raised by her extraordinarily self-contained artist mother on a tiny Norwegian island, where the summer nights are white and haunting, and her neighbour’s folk tales of trolls and huldra do not seem out of place. When two boys Liv has known from school drown within weeks of each other, the landscape of her eighteenth summer becomes laced with a heightened intensity, compounded by the appearance of an English man with secrets who is staying nearby, and the wild girl Maia who Liv knows spent time with the drowned boys before their death and seems to have a malevolent influence on those around her. Can she really be the huldra?

THOUGHTS:  This is an intensely dark and brooding story, simmering with suspense and seeped in rich imagery of the Norwegian landscape. From the synopsis you might expect some kind of murder mystery, but it is more of a psychological suspense story, the mysteries of this novel concerning Liv and her life: her relationship with her mother and lack of relationship with her father, her susceptibility to the folk tales she is surrounded by, and the hallucinogenic qualities of the Nordic summer. Told from Liv’s perspective ten years later, there is increasing doubt as to the reliability of her narrative, and one soon begins to wonder just how often we have been misdirected. The huldra is of course a mythological creature but she is a product of the human mind, and one wonders by whom, in this story, the huldra is really represented? One wonders how much of the story is ‘real’ and what, anyway, constitutes ‘real’?

I was at first reluctant to immerse myself in this novel, finding Burnside’s style dense, and repetitive, with certain words or images used multiple times over just a few pages, and over-long sentences leading to paragraphs which regularly exceeded a page in length. However, the meandering narrative is peppered with some startlingly beautiful images and moments of clarity (Burnside’s background as a poet coming to the fore), and I began to read the style as representative of Liv’s state of mind. The wonderfully evoked atmosphere and sense of place really sucked me in, and I began savouring the experience, intrigued to know where the story would lead.

Loose ends are not neatly tied together at the end, and this is the kind of story that could be interpreted in numerous ways; but I have a very clear idea myself of what actually happened, and found the build up of information, suspense and ‘action’ was, ultimately, plotted to perfection. The reader must look “for the unseen, adjacent space that the stories unfold in”. The story is still unfolding and echoing in my mind, and I know it is one I will return to in the future, and find something entirely new waiting for me. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and the experience of this book.

“There’s something different about time here, the old stories persist in the wood of the boathouses and the ferry docks, time drifts and founders in the pools of summer grass and willowherb that grow along the roadsides. All you have to do is choose the right day, the right weather, and you come upon a hidden place in the morning light where time stopped long before you were born.”

“the beauty had been softened by the season: at the end of the summer, the first hint of decay had stolen in, tingeing a seed head here, or a blade of grass there, with grey, or brown, everything glossed with the rain, glossed, but not freshened, limned with hints of rust and charcoal, at the moment that comes after the last flourish, but before the descent into nothingness.

“Today, however, she didn’t go looking for urchins or broken shells. She simply walked to the end of the earth and stood a while.”

FOLLOWING ON:  In a Dark Wood by Amanda Craig is similarly successful in using folk/fairy tales as a metaphor for psychological unrest.  Another manifestation of a mythical creature in day-to-day life can be found in Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy.


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