A Summer of Drowning is a challenging read. It’s difficult to place the novel in any particular genre. The opening sentence “Late in May 2001, about ten days after I saw him for the last time, Mats Sigfridsson was hauled out of Malangen Sound, a few miles down the coast from here,” prepares you for yet another crime story in a frozen landscape with sorrowful stares out towards the ocean and horrible murders to solve. But, as with everything in this novel, the opening is deceptive.
Our narrator, Liv, who confesses to seeing things and is believed by her own Mother to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, quickly informs us that the old man she is friends with, Kyrre Opdahl, believes that Mats Sigfridsson, and his brother who soon joins him in death, are victims of the huldra, a character from Norwegian folklore who appears as a beautiful woman at face value but who has nothing behind her and leads besotted men to their deaths. And like all the best of the old stories, folklore, fairy tale and horror aren’t so distinguishable, they’re intermixed, useful visors through which to see the truth of the world.
John Burnside confesses that this was a difficult book to write. He wanted to write something about Norway, a place he’d fallen for, and a young adult novel, and after numerous failed attempts and a decade or so of effort A Summer of Drowning was produced. It’s an extremely slow book, not least because moments of mystery are often hinted at and mediated through a protagonist who constantly doubts herself. There are also, it has to be said, long ponderings of art (including the Narcissus myth) that some readers may find frustrating.
Instead of an easily definable or fast moving plot the novel is an exploration into seeing and believing. It is all too easy to draw parallels between the author’s own psychological issues and past drug use with a character who says “I’m not crazy – I know enough after all, not to talk about these things to the living” and “What had happened belonged to Kyrre’s world, the world of stories and fatal magic, and any attempt to tell what had happened in that world would only convince people that the old man had turned my head with his nonsense. I would be the object of scorn or pity, a hysterical girl […] Sometimes, I even told myself I was exactly that.” But the best horror stories and fairy tales have always been metaphors for our very real anxieties, those feelings when in the woods that there is something else watching, that feeling when you’re alone at night that you really aren’t all that alone, those irrationalities that are fundamental to the human experience. And sometimes we try to understand them better by rationalising them, and sometimes, as Liv’s mother points out, “[d]reams are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world […] Dreams mend us.” A Summer of Drowning feels like a lament for those very old tales humanity used to tell itself to make sense of a world that it couldn’t explain.
This is a difficult novel, one that’s deceptive and evocative and presents mysteries for the reader to answer themselves. Whether there is something more mystical behind certain characters or whether or not you believe that something terrible and impossible has happened is entirely up to you. The plot invites either a rational or irrational reading but which way will you make sense of it?
By Mark (Uxbridge Library)