Monday, 10 October 2011

A Summer of Drowning

I was telling a story about the Cyclops to my five-year-old son. I was driving but I caught his eye in the rear-view mirror.

"Is that true?" he said and I paused before answering.

"Some things are true even if the things that the story says happened didn't actually happen." I said. My son looked confused.

"Like Religion," I said "When people talk about God."

His face lit up right away.

"Oh, OK" he said.

We've had quite a few conversations about baby Jesus and God. I always tell him I don't believe in God, that's it's just another story. Now here I was sticking up for the veracity of myths! Anyway...John Burnside's novel The Summer of Drowning is like that. It's about stories VS rationality - about the relationship between Truth and fiction. It's about the difficulty of believing in other people as real. It's about what you feel like when it's light day and night for months on end, as happens on the edge of the Arctic Circle where this astonishing novel is set. It's about the terror that lurks in the dark, in the corners of eyes and at the edges of understanding. It's about the fragile line between sanity and complete madness.

Why did I choose the song above, that hopefully you have just played, or maybe are playing now? It's a beautiful song. There is a line in the original by Leonard Cohen that goes:

"you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you"

...that seems to resonate perfectly with the book and the central motif of the huldra, an unbearably beautiful woman who lures susceptible men to a watery grave. Another reason is that the band are Norwegian and the book is set in Norway. Then there's also a quality, an emptiness, in the music that fits the book. There is a certain amount of space where nothing happens in the music. Much of the book is about the spaces between people. Things left unsaid, the absence of the narrator, Liv's, father and the way her artist mother locks herself away in the studio, painting for days on end. A sense that emotion is dangerous, that connection must be approached with care to avoid damage to a self who may have been painstakingly created.

The Summer of Drowning is a novel of great power and insight that creeps beneath your skin to haunt you. It also makes you think deeply about life and art. The narrator, Liv, is as unreliable as perception itself and as sinister as they come.

I loved it!

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