A Summer of Drowning (2011) by John Burnside
When asked to list the types of books I generally enjoy, a phrase I've often thrown into the list is 'books about solitary people'. In A Summer of Drowning, I have found perhaps the ultimate book about solitary people. Set on the remote Norwegian island of Kvaløya, it features a cast of characters almost universally defined by their independence and solitude. The story is narrated by Liv, a self-confessed loner with no boyfriend or friends - nor any desire for them; her closest relationship is with Kyrre Opdahl, an ageing neighbour who fills her head with old folk tales about mythical creatures and supernatural powers. Liv has been brought up alone by her artist mother Angelika, who has deliberately chosen the isolation of island life and is famed for her reclusive existence. In the present day of the story, Liv is 28, but the majority of the narrative takes place 10 years previously, and recounts the summer she finished school, an already uncertain time marred by a spate of drownings on the island.
Interwoven with the mystery of the drownings is a traditional tale about the huldra - a troll disguised as a beautiful woman, who spirits men away and leads them to their deaths. Kyrre's obsession with variations on this story slowly begins to taint Liv's perceptions of the events of that summer, and she develops an increasing conviction that a mysterious, apparently homeless classmate, Maia, is not all she seems to be, and is in some way connected to the inexplicable deaths. Liv describes herself as 'one of God's spies', and passes her empty days by observing the actions of neighbours and her mother's acquaintances. When a friendly yet sinister stranger called Martin Crosbie arrives to spend summer on the island and becomes the main subject of Liv's spying, her suspicions spiral out of control, to the point that she begins to lose her grip on the line between fantasy and reality.
A Summer of Drowning is a book in which every character has hidden depths and harbours dark secrets. Liv is a complicated girl, precocious but naive, whose life has been shaped by her adored but somewhat heartless mother - and influenced in a different way by the palpable absence of a father she has never known. Despite lacking her own voice in the book, Angelika herself is a constantly dominant presence, a fact underlined by Liv's frequent references to her as Mother - in contrast to her repeated disparaging dismissal of her father as father, the italics often implying a sarcastic tone. The book is filled with small, carefully crafted, and meaningful details like this. The characters and the relationships between them are, without exception, brilliantly rendered, and there's a constant undertone of suspense and unease which reaches its climax in a subtly terrifying interlude set in England.
Personally, I loved this book, but I can imagine that it won't have the same appeal for every reader; it's rather dreamlike, often slow-moving, and there are times when the events it portrays seem oddly anticlimactic and almost unfinished. I have to admit I was disappointed that the last third of the book didn't recapture the escalating sense of dread conveyed so effectively in the England section, and that aspects such as the weird letter Liv received in the hotel were never given a satisfying explanation. Because we see everything through Liv's eyes, the story ends on a slightly frustrating note, as tales related by unreliable narrators often do. At the end, I felt I'd had a sublime reading experience yet had been left a little let down by the plot. Nevertheless, due to John Burnside's beautiful, beguiling prose and hugely appealing (to me) themes, this was one of the most inspiring books I've read all year. There is absolutely no doubt that I will be reading more of this author's work.