34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on 21 September 2011
Totally engrossing story deep into the thoughts, feelings, sensings of a young solitary Norwegian woman living in a remote island in the far north. Ostensibly it's a story about a number of tragic events that occurred in summer in the insomnia-inducing time of midnight sun, but these actually play a more peripheral role than you might imagine. This is no Nordic crime thriller, but a much deeper exploration of psyche and perception.
It's set in a hallucinatory, dreamlike environment and the story reflects these qualities too. Everything is told from the viewpoint of the girl, Liv, with few outside anchors to corroborate her, so the atmosphere is both unsettling and claustrophobic. It's difficult to be sure of what we are told and at times almost everything seems uncertain. Are these criminal events? Is it the fantasy of a too solitary and isolated girl? Is it a descent into madness? Are supernatural events occurring?
Some of the descriptions are extremely intense, particularly of the landscape in the midnight sun or middnattsol with its "white nights", and of the interactions from time to time with other people. The language is beautiful and there's a real atmosphere conjured up of magic and claustrophobia. Liv seems extremely perceptive, able to sense with uncanny accuracy what others are thinking and feeling, why they behave as they do, what they will do next, almost before they do themselves. It's actually quite a shock then when her perceptiveness seems to fail her on a key rare occasion.
This is a great novel but I'm slightly in two minds about recommending it. It won't be for everyone. First, if you're looking for a crime story this is not it. Second, it can be unsettling, possibly disturbing, to read, mainly due to the very intense and confined viewpoint. However it is different and feels very fresh, brilliantly written, set in a fascinating landscape, with a dreamlike atmosphere. It benefits from some active thinking as you're reading it rather than just absorbing the story (is the best way I can describe it). If any of this appeals to you, then give it a try. It is very special and may even haunt your dreams for a while.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
"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?
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 26 April 2012
When I read the reviews of John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning, I knew I had to read it.
It conveyed the atmosphere of what it must be like to live so far north, where daylight is endless. The sense of place, and the atmosphere of the 'uncanny' and mystery are excellent. I've been left thinking about it and trying to put logic on it - I think that it will live on in my mind.
Very evocative and beautiful, and I very much recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 5 June 2012
A Summer of DrowningThis story is set in the island of Kvaløya in the Arctic Circle of Norway. It deals with the events that unfold gently over the summer where it can be difficult to separate the old Norwegian tales from reality and the 21st century. The characters are isolated in location and their activities but their very solitude is suited to their own personal selfish ideals of life. The central character knows no other way of life as she has had a very solitary upbringing both physically and emotionally and her inherited artistic creativity is entwined with her understanding of what has happened when two boys drown. What we are left to think about is just what is artistic interpretation of events and how much has been influenced by her very narrow field of emotion. It seems to me that the whole story is about the isolation and the effect on mental stability. I loved it as just that. A mind book.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 April 2012
I would have given this five stars, but for the completely misleading blurb on the back cover. As others have mentioned, the blurb suggests that this will be something Wallander-esque, and I have to say that this is why I picked it up. It's nothing at all like that, but I still really enjoyed it, as I am fascinated by solitary people, creative people, introverted people, and this story definitely explores this type of personality in an extremely remote setting.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 July 2012
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?
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.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on 18 December 2011
This has the makings of a great tale. Setting? Northern Norway. During summer. Great, I think, I know nothing about up there, this should be good. Plot? A girl lives alone with her mother, a painter, and she is troubled by strange goings on. Great, I think, nice little spooker. Love it. Something about a huldra, which is a Norwegian folk story of a woman/creature who lures men to their deaths. Great, Norwegian folklore, check. Spooky tale, check. Some evocative setting that I've always wanted to see but know nothing about? Check.
But the writing style is exhausting. Burnside writes something like this: 'And so I thought, at the time, it was a weird feeling, but maybe it was something else, maybe it was a different feeling; or maybe it wasn't, maybe it was a third feeling; but looking back on things, it may have been a fourth feeling. But it really was a fifth thing. Definitely. Except for what happened next, which means maybe it was a sixth thing.' Yeah, yeah, keep me posted. And on and on and on it goes like this. Page after page. Burnside and his narrator can never pin anything down. Sure, you might say, it's the unreliable narrator thing. He's creating atmosphere.
No, actually, he's not, he's creating boredom. I don't care if your narrator is unreliable. Just let me know how she is feeling and end it. Don't go back and forth.
And so I thought of this book, a good book, according to others, according to some, though maybe they are unreliable, so it seems. It felt like a good book, but ended up not so good, or maybe even bad, though, looking back on it, it wasn't necessarily bad as badly written, though maybe it was poorly thought out. Or edited. Maybe, just maybe it was edited poorly. Or not. Maybe they meant for it to be bad, or, rather, not so good.
Do you get my picture here?
Rarely do I come across a novel which lives up to the blurb on the front and back covers. With A SUMMER OF DROWNING, I can happily say that comments such as "hauntingly beautiful" and "compelling and strange" do sum it up rather nicely. This is definitely a strange book, but I found it very compelling.
Before beginning A SUMMER OF DROWNING, the synopsis which had caught my interest was that the story revolved around the drowning of two young boys. Within the synopsis, it states that whilst some see this as a small tragedy, a young woman called Liv believes that their drowning may be due to a mythic creature, the huldra. Liv, who lives in a small community in the Arctic Circle with her artist mother, has been brought up on stories of trolls and sprites. But, what I soon discovered when I began reading this novel is that to think that the story is about these two boys who drown is to be somewhat misled.
Liv acts as our narrator, telling us about the summer when the boys drowned, but telling us from the safety of ten years having now passed. Liv is a strange character to a certain degree. There is an innocence to her - her closest friend is an elderly man who regales her with stories from folk-lore, fairy tale and myth. This, in itself, makes her perhaps a less conventional narrator. We question just what kind of grip she has on reality. Yet, for me, there was something compelling about her, perhaps even charming. There is a mystery to her tale, but this mystery is not all she has to offer.
Burnside has done an amazing job at creating Liv's world. The characters - both real and mythic - are expertly drawn and bought to life. The atmosphere he creates is also second to none. Although, in some ways, very little happens, the tension which is created is magnificent. As a reader, you definitely pick up a sense of unease as Liv takes you through the account to that summer. The prose is perfect - I can see that Burnside is a poet also - there is a complexity to it which makes a 'simple' piece of writing actually anything but simplistic. I borrowed this book from the library, but I am meaning to buy a copy for myself - it is one of those that I would love to return to in a few years.
Highly recommended. A novel of light and dark, reality and myth, love and isolation with more than a hint of madness. I loved it.
on 29 November 2012
"A Summer of Drowning" is John Burnsides eighth fictitious novel and shortlisted for the 2011 Costa book awards. Throughout his fiction, poetry and memoirs there are reoccurring themes of dark shadows and the close presence of the dead which certainly manifest themselves throughout this novel. "A Summer of Drowning" is set on an island called Kvaløya, north of the Arctic Circle, where people are driven to madness by the white nights of the Artic. It is the story of an intelligent, young and lonely girl named Liv who was brought up in an isolated town by her mother, a "famously reclusive painter". Now, as a 28 year old, Liv is retelling the story of her eighteenth summer and the traumatic events that occurred.
Burnside sets the scene of a deserted and spooky town; a place where the old folktales, told by Livs elderly neighbour Kyrre, of spirits and the "Huldra", a beautiful young girl, who lures men to danger and death, seem almost possible. Much to Liv's dismay, they start to become a reality following the arrival of a dark and shadowy young girl named Maia. The mysterious events of that "strange summer" begin with two young brothers drowning in the still, calm waters of the shallows within weeks of each other. This initiates the psychological struggle of Liv's mind and makes it difficult to decipher whether this, and the events that follow, are truly something sinister or a figment of her imagination.
A `Summer of Drowning' is described as a story full of mystery and suspense with a promising storyline making it the kind of book I would usually pick up and enjoy. However, I found there to be a lot of time where there's not a lot happening. Burnside's poetic nature is evident in his beautiful, intense and in-depth descriptions making it incredibly atmospheric and haunting. Although, his sentences and paragraphs comprising of just description became monotonous and repetitive, and I found myself skimming over them to reach a more interesting part of the story. Despite the length of the book, it is made up of only three chapters, little use of dialogue and most the narrative being based around Liv's thoughts; this may be intentional to reflect the long days of the artic, but I found it made the story hard to follow.
Having finished the novel, I don't feel as though I learnt a lot about the characters. Had I been able to connect with them better and found Liv more compelling, I think I would have enjoyed the novel much more. The book has you questioning Liv's state of mind making it hard to tell whether the events she always came close to witnessing where happening or a trick of her mind. The questions formed in my mind about Liv's sanity and whether the Huldra did exist were left unanswered when the book didn't come to the conclusive end that I felt the story needed; I found myself able to predict what was going to happen before it did. This was my first encounter with a Burnside novel so I was unsure of what to expect. Although I found a lot of the story captivating and well written, I think the extent of repetitive and intense description would put me off reading another.
At first I thought this would be a tale of suicides by drowning and disappearances with a possibly supernatural cause, fed by the folktales of northern Norway and the setting on Kvaløya, a real vaguely clover leaf shaped island west of Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle where in summer the midnight sun drives people to insomnia, hallucinations, even madness.
Then I decided it is an intense psychological study of Liv, a highly intelligent, observant , introspective girl brought up in unusual isolation by her mother, a talented but selfish and coldly objective artist.
In the end, I could not ignore Liv's conviction that an evil spirit or "huldra" is at work in the body of a local girl. Yet, some events remain unexplained or ambiguous, so that you can, if you choose, attribute them to Liv's possible descent into madness.
What impressed me most is the description of Kvaløya, with its sense of the suspension of time as we know it - there is a good deal in this book about reality being an illusion and vice versa, made credible in this location. Burnside is also very skilled at encouraging us to reflect on the nature of our existence - at first it seems odd, even shocking, that a bright girl like Liv has no friends, wanders about for hours on end doing nothing in particular, but her reflections help us to see that in many ways our frantically busy, occupied, materialistic lives may lack real meaning.
Burnside's poetry gives his prose great intensity. There are many striking images: the arctic terns which follow the sun, dipping into the water for silver fish, the blurring of the land, sea and sky into the same colour, a spirit conjured by a folktale evident through "the tremor in a glass", and so on.
When it comes to the analysis of thoughts, with every look and phrase examined from many angles, yet much left cryptic or open to question, his writing can be a little too much to take. Yet, the intensity, combined with some repetition, contribute to the hypnotic quality of the writing.
Minor criticisms are the tendency to tell us what is going to happen, the prologue which seems to me like the statutory hook required by a publisher - and in this case quite misleading as to the nature of the novel - and the shortcomings of the "dramatic climax".
Burnside is a talented writer and much of this is a gripping read, although I felt that the mixture of the pragmatic with the supernatural ultimately does not quite work. If nothing else, he has introduced me to the wonderful paintings of Harald Sohlberg.