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.
"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.
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?
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.
on 8 June 2011
With his last couple of novels Burnside has been moving into some interesting territory, using folk tale and fable to infuse his narratives with the very essence of storytelling. Before the written word there was oral storytelling, the means by which cultures could pass down their knowledge and lessons from one generation to the next. Burnside has managed to embrace something of that essence (whilst always rooting his stories in reality, leaving it to the reader to decide just how much to take the narrative voice at face value) with the tales of cloven hooves and two-headed babies in The Devil's Footprints and the poisoned wood and disappearing children in his last novel Glister. His latest is even more obviously immersed in that tradition, located on the small Norwegian island of Kvaløya, deep in the Arctic Circle, a landscape of mountains, forests and fjords, populated by tales of trolls, mermaids and spirits. It is to here that renowned painter Angelika Rossdal escaped several years ago with her daughter Liv, a place where she could pursue her craft in isolation, the kind of self-imposed exile that might be familiar to any other regular readers of Burnside.
It is Liv who narrates the novel, ten years after the titular summer of her eighteenth year, a summer illuminated as ever by the midnattsol, or midnight sun of these northern latitudes but marked out as special initially by the separate drownings of two brothers in calm water, events both uncharacteristic and unexplainable. Liv wasn't particularly close to either of the boys, she isn't particularly close to anyone apart from her mother and their elderly neighbour Kyree Opdahl, but in such a small community she cannot help but be interested in the stories that begin to circulate and when these combine with the old folk tales and her own active thoughts they build into a crescendo that has taken ten years for her to be able to relate to us.
Kvaløya is the perfect environment for blurring the distinctions between myth and reality, even Angelika's remoteness is a 'mythic seclusion' cultivated by those that wish to portray her as an artistic recluse, and there is no doubt that this fiction has become 'central to her artistic success'. Amongst the other inhabitants she has a mythic status also, her home receiving a regular group of 'suitors' each weekend, men who know they stand no chance in capturing this beauty but 'like those men in the Greek myth, come to beguile, or charm, or just outwait Penelope while her lost husband wandered the wine-dark sea trying to find his way home.' In another form of isolation, Liv has never met her father, never been able to draw her mother on anything about him, even his name. That isolated upbringing is total, an environment of limited stimulus, a single parent who is often lost to her work, and few friends to speak of. She may not believe in God 'or not in the usual way, but I do find that I am here for a reason, and that is to keep watch. To pay attention' and that is why she thinks of her self as 'one of God's spies' (which also takes the rather more worldly form of snooping with binoculars). The influences on Liv have been minimal, with the stories and fancies of Kyrre Opdahl assuming a larger significance than she may even realise in shaping her view of the world. Whether they come from his illustrated children's books, or straight from the horse's mouth, his tales have helped Liv to open her mind to the thought that the world might be stranger than we give it credit for - 'Stranger - and more dangerous.'
It is in the tale of the huldra that Kyrre sees a possible explanation for the boys drowning. The huldra is a beautiful woman who leads young men to their doom - 'Seen from the front, she is perfectly beautiful, perfectly desirable, but if he could only look past this beautiful mask, he would see that, at her back, there is a startling vacancy, a tiny rip in the fabric of the world where everything falls away into emptiness.' Could Maia, a local girl living an almost vagrant existence be involved in the drownings, or the disappearance of a British man using Kyrre's hytte, or cottage, as a retreat? Whilst Liv wrestles with events at home she receives a letter from abroad that brings that unknown father crashing into her consciousness. When she eventually leaves her home to confront that she visits an art gallery where she sees the painting by Harald Sohlberg that adorns the cover of this book. The slightly odd experience of viewing such a familiar image whilst in a provincial English gallery provides an almost spiritual experience for Liv which gives us a small clue to her fragile mental state just before returning home where it will unravel still further.
Painting is naturally a major theme and inexorably linked to the novel's examination of reality. Angelika has moved away from portraiture to landscapes, not as you might expect because her location demands it, but because she had tried and failed to capture something in that aspect of her work, and in a portrait of her daughter in particular. Her interest is rekindled by the spectre of the huldra and by Maia as a subject, something that naturally causes huge conflict for Liv. Burnside also manages to work in Leon Battista Alberti's theory that Narcissus invented painting. If we accept that Narcissus didn't realise at first that the reflection was of himself then perhaps this was because he had thought of himself as apart from the world, merely an observer of those other people and objects within it. The reflection in the pool showed not only himself but the sky and trees that surrounded him and suddenly made him a part of the world he had observed, 'for the first time, he is part of the world, and art is his way of confirming that. A way of saying that he is in the world, in the world and of it.' This novel of disappearances is also one of realisation, of people struggling to acknowledge the presence of others. Each of the characters could be accused of having regarded themselves as 'an island entire of itself,' content in their isolation but forced over this summer towards 'the difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real' (Iris Murdoch's definition of love).
A final word about atmosphere, something that Burnside has always excelled at. Not only is the landscape well-suited but that otherworldly light, so brilliantly depicted in Sohlberg's painting and described in Burnside's prose (and even evoked in Radiohead's The Gloaming), is the perfect illumination for such a dreamlike narrative. We can never entirely be sure of our narrator's reliability. Liv may be looking back with hindsight (and almost exhaustively so, the text littered with 'it seemed to me...', ' I can see now...' etc etc) and from a place of happiness, but she has always struggled to reconcile what she witnessed with what others might accept as possible. What we have to remember, going back to what I was saying earlier about the very nature of early storytelling, is that we shouldn't be fooled by something that is merely dream-like.
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.
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.
on 25 February 2014
Overly long for the actual content of the story. Editing would have helped. None of the threads were conclusively resolved leaving a somewhat disappointing conclusion.
Some lovely writing descriptively of the land near the Arctic and the 'midnatsol'.
The narrator seemed too obsessive in her dissection of every persons looks/speech/body language which became tiresome. (especially by someone who doesn't get out much)
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.
on 24 January 2016
I so wanted to love this book, but I'm afraid it wasn't for me - the writing was in some places beautiful but I found it very hard to engage with the characters, the overall effect was slow, slightly arch and self indulgent - all atmosphere and no substance. It was also far too long.