Summer (2012) by Tom Darling
Following the deaths of their parents in a freak accident, Grace and Billy Hooper - thirteen and nine years old respectively - go to live with their grandfather on his farm. It's a remote and lonely place: no shops for fifteen miles, no other children, no mobile phone reception - there isn't even a television. On top of that, their grandfather has little idea of how to deal with them and they are often left to fend for themselves, roaming the surrounding farmland for the whole of this strange, baking hot summer. Grace is confused by the encroaching onset of womanhood, Billy becomes obsessed with killing 'vermin' such as rats and pigeons, and both children struggle to come to terms with their grief.
Summer is a strange but effective mixture. It reminded me very strongly of a lot of the children's fiction I used to read when I was about 10 years old, about kids living in these idyllic but oddly lonely countryside homes (although those books did usually have talking animals in them as well). There is something about the style, though, that's clearly reminiscent of the hazy, romantic nostalgia of those stories. At the same time, there are elements to what happens that are most definitely adult in nature, even if they're not wholly understood by the child protagonists. The narrative flows well: Darling's style is accomplished, more so than you would expect from a second novel by a young author, and creates a palpable atmosphere.
I did, I'll admit, expect more from this book. When I first read the plot synopsis, the outline reminded me of Ross Raisin's God's Own Country, a favourite of mine, which also features an isolated young person on a remote farm, but is much darker. I was therefore anticipating a twisted and perhaps disturbing plot with a lot more action. In fact, Summer is quite a gentle read, and until the very end, the disturbing content is confined to a few small incidents and a general uncomfortable feeling pervading the children's aimless days. The ending is strong, although not exactly unexpected - it isn't difficult to guess what kind of conclusion the story is leading up to.
I read this quickly because it was easy to read and possessed a certain clarity of prose, not because I found it enormously interesting. There's a restricted, stifling feel to the plot, and though this is partly balanced out by the writing, the fact remains that little happens, the setting never changes and interaction between the characters is minimal. I didn't quite find it boring, but at points I was quite keen to get to the end. Overall, the idea was better than the execution.