Book Review: A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

A Summer of Drowning is one of those books with no real plots, but then it doesn’t really matter since the plot is not the point.

The artist, Angelika Rossdal and her daughter, Liv (the narrator) live solitary lives in Kvaløya, an isolated island in Norway. Liv, now 28 years old, recalls the summer she was 18 when there was a spate of four unexplained disappearances. Their only neighbour and Liv’s only friend is a mysterious old man, Kyrre, who beguiles Liv with myths, particularly about the huldra – who seduces young men and leads them to their death.

Reading this felt like dreaming most of the time, in that it’s often almost ‘structure-less’, meanders, is full of images that the prose brings to the mind – these images sometimes visceral in its beauty, sometimes terror inducing in that they make you feel out of control. The author is a poet which is evident in the lyricism of his prose – there are whole paragraphs that I have highlighted. It also transports you to a world of imagination and silence – you think of the spaces between silences and what exists apart from the bustle of everyday life. Through a beautifully illustrative description of the landscape (which is also like a character in the novel), the author evokes questions about the mysteries of the natural world away from modern living, and about how despite advances in technology, man doesn’t really see beyond the obvious and cannot unravel or even see the mythical and mystical since he has lost the ability to do so.

I have always loved books about quiet lives and this is a book for those who love their alone time and a vast space not filled with people. Liv is definitely my kindred spirit in her desire to break away from the norms that define societal structures, and from the ordinary and the everyday.

(The Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago. The book evokes as well as seems to be inspired by this painting.)
The landscape, at times achingly beautiful, starts to seem menacing when Liv starts to ‘see’ and believe Kyrre about the huldra having been responsible for the disappearances. The ‘real world’ becomes less real than the myths that start to come to life. I am not a big fan of magical realism, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself drawn to the mystical in the book. It’s as if the reader, like Liv, becomes a part of the elaborate delusion that becomes reality.There is no solution to the mysteries and that is okay – it suits the dreamlike, unresolved style of the book. I was only disappointed with the last bit of the book. I thought it was too long drawn out than it was necessary and the charm started to wear off – I felt a bit more skeptical and less mesmerized than I was with the rest of the book.

Overall, this is recommended for those with a lot of patience, which will be rewarded if you enjoy beautiful sentences.

Rating: 4/5
(By Misha)

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