Sunday, October 23, 2011
Book Review - A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside
A Summer of Drowning is John Burnside’s eighth novel. Although it sounded interesting to me, I initially decided to skip it because the previous “Burnside novels” I’d read I was less than taken with. Then I read an article in which Burnside stated that he, himself, was less than thrilled with his own early novels and that he recognized their mistakes. Okay, I decided, maybe it was time I gave John Burnside another chance.
A Summer of Drowning is set on the small Arctic island of Kvaløya, a place of “snow and sullen light” by winter, and “bird calls and wind-sifted murmurs” by summer. It’s narrated in retrospect by Liv, the teenaged daughter of Angelika Rossdale, a celebrated landscape painter from Oslo.
Liv and Angelika live together in a “grey, sunlit house above the meadows,” and Angelika, who is “famously reclusive” and who “didn’t need other people,” rarely emerges from her studio unless it’s for dinner, or Saturday morning coffee, or to garden. Her painting, she says, is her life, and her removal from the world, she insists, is deliberate: “To turn away from the busy world is interesting, up to a point…but to refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art.” Initially, one believes Angelika, but as the reader gets deeper into the book, he or she has to wonder if Angelika has, indeed, “removed herself from the frame,” or if she’s only paying lip service to this ideal.
Liv, however, who has no choice in being “removed from the frame,” who has no vocation, not much ambition, and on that remote northern island, none of the interests that preoccupy most girls her age. Almost by default, Liv has become a watcher, “one of God’s spies.” “I simply look out,” she says, “over the meadows, over the water, and I pay attention.”
The one person on Kvaløya Liv pays attention to is Kyrre Opdahl, Angelika and Liv’s elderly neighbor. Kyrre lives on the island with his boxes of “beautiful junk” and tells Liv Norse folktales, the “old stories,” one revolving around the huldra, a forest creature who lures both men and boys to their death. When two of her classmates – Mats and Harald Sigfridsson – drown within days of each other – Liv begins to wonder if another classmate, Maia, a “dark-eyed, mocking girl with a loose tomboy walk who had always been an outsider” could be the huldra. Maia was, after all, seen with both boys shortly before they drowned, and both boys drowned on clear, still nights. As Liv puts it, “The meadows were quiet, the sky was clear, and the water was still….There was no reason for any of them to die.”
Another person Liv watches is Englishman Martin Crosbie, “around thirty…sensitive, or delicate…a worried spirit.” Crosbie has rented Kyrre’s boathouse for the entire summer, and to Liv, he’s an odd man, telling little, seemingly insignificant lies and going about always distracted, as if drunk. Liv describes him as “elsewhere, in another world, or another time.” In addition, Crosbie seems to be watching Liv as much as Liv is watching him. Crosbie, as Liv will learn, has his secrets, secrets she was not meant to discover.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that before this extraordinary summer is over, Kyrre, Maia, and Martin Crosbie will disappear as well. Despite the fact that I said “it’s not a spoiler,” I can hear the groans now. Since Liv is telling the story in retrospect, from vantage point of ten years, the reader learns about the disappearances in the first seven pages. And knowing about them doesn’t spoil the story tension, but adds to it, instead. We begin to feel claustrophobic, trapped on the island just as Liv is trapped. And, like Liv, we begin to sense the impending horror of that summer, the summer when “the light was that still, silvery-white gloaming that makes everything spectral…ghost birds hanging on the air.”
In between observing those around her, Liv, as can be seen from the above, is a keen observer of the natural world. She tells the reader about “a new sweetness of grasses and wildflowers, and mountain water gathering in the meadows” and “pockets of darkness” on garden walls. From its opening pages A Summer of Drowning is a hypnotic book, written in beautiful, hypnotic prose. I wasn’t surprised at that. Burnside is also a talented poet, a Whitbread winner, and his prose as well has been praised for its crystalline clarity and poetic cadence. This is very evident in this lyrically written book. Listen to Liv and she imagines Maia:
Maia floating in the Sound somewhere downshore, and a stolen boat drifting on the tide, miles away, empty, barely moving, on water that, to all appearances, was as still and unbroken as the surface of an empty mirror.
Even those who don’t know much about poetry, and I am certainly no poet myself, though I do love reading poetry, will notice the long vowels and the repeated consonant sounds. The beauty of Burnside’s prose actually adds to the feeling of menace and impending doom present everywhere in this book. This is a book about the shadowland between waking and dreams, between reality and myth, and Burnside’s limpid prose is perfect for showcasing that place of mystery.
Naturally A Summer of Drowning is a very atmospheric book, but what, exactly, that atmosphere might be is difficult to pin down. At times, this is a gorgeous book, filled with all the strange light and wild beauty of the remote North. At other times, it’s sinister, as just about everyone watches everyone else, and everyone, it seems, has something to hide. And, there are dips into the supernatural, but dips only. This isn’t a book “about” the supernatural, and when it comes to that subject, Burnside writes with an extraordinarily light touch. The book is definitely not “gimmickly.” As one reads on, past the first third or so, one comes to realize that this is also a book about delusion and self-delusion, and about the untrustworthiness of believing what we see with our own eyes. Once the reader realizes that the central subject of the book isn’t the mystery of what happened to Mats and Harald and Kyrre and Maia and even Martin Crosbie, but Liv, herself, a note of hysteria, or perhaps paranoia, has crept into the narrative, and the book’s title becomes highly symbolic.
And, about that title. It’s “a” summer of drowning, not “the” summer of drowning. Was there more than one? Is this something that happens with any degree of regularity on Kvaløya? Is there something, something important that Liv is holding back? For Liv, herself tells us that there are “two kinds of seeing.” One is about finding “what we have always been told is there,” while the other is about going “out alone in the world,” like “a boy going out into the fields, or along the shore,” a boy who finds that “something creeps in at the edge of his vision.”
Liv is a well-drawn character, but some readers, I think, will find it difficult to identify with her. She’s not your average girl, or what you might think of as “your average girl.” And she’s not nearly as serious as one might think, with all the disappearing and drowning going on around her. At an art gallery showing, she says, “It was immediately obvious [it] was one of those exhibitions that seek to inform and, at the same time, provoke serious thinking about what art is all about and I couldn’t be bothered with that.”
All of the characters are a bit mysterious, but in this book, that doesn’t equate to “sketchily drawn.” These characters serve this novel best by not revealing everything about themselves, by not letting us get to know them better than they know themselves.
So, did I think the book was perfect? Almost, but not quite. I think it’s weighed down – and a book like this should feel weightless – by a subplot involving Liv’s travel writer father in England, a man she’s never seen. We realize that Liv is finally being given a chance to define herself, to “frame” her own life in a way her mother never offered her. But the subplot, though beautifully written and interesting, at least at first, lacks any emotional payoff, and Liv fails to obtain the answers she seeks.
In the end, A Summer of Drowning might be one of those books that raises more questions than it answers. It is deliberately ambiguous, and this ambiguity is disturbing and haunting. This is a book that grabs hold of a reader and won’t let go weeks, months, maybe years after the last page has been turned. I just loved it.
Recommended: To readers of literary fiction, who don’t require every loose end to be tied up.
Note: I know some readers who believe the cover of this book, while attractive, is far too dark. I agree, and I want to point out that the actual cover is far darker than the photo depicts. The book, itself, is dark, but prospective readers must be able to see the scene depicted on the cover to be enticed to pick the book up and page through it. I hope publishers take Julian Barnes’ words to heart about cover art, and that readers will see a surge in quality cover art in the years to come.