Despite being shortlisted for the Costa Book Award in 2011, A Summer of Drowning by our very own Professor John Burnside is much more than a novel to read while sipping overpriced store-brand coffee as the name of the award implies. (Disclosure: The Costa Book award is not connected to the Costa Coffee Franchise). Poignant, elegantly crafted, and poetically written, Burnside’s second, most recent novel showcases his skill as one of the great craftsmen of the English language.
The story follows a young girl named Liv, who lives with her artist mother in the Arctic circle of Norway, as she tries to make sense of the disappearance of two boys from her village. These two disappearances happen early in the summer and change Liv’s entire outlook on life. Kyrre, a local handyman, entices her with stories from traditional Scandinavian folklore and, as the story progresses, the clear cut distinction between what is real and what is myth is blurred. Among the people that she meets that summer are Martin, a lone vacationer, Maia, a suspicious girl from her town, and the myriad of men that her mother has over to the house. This influx of strangers makes Liv uneasy to the point of paranoia. It is a retrospective narrative that tries to make sense and define the meanings of what it is to be a witness, to be observed, and to be the observer.
The novel questions the distinction between the observer and the witness, as Liv is posed perfectly between the two. She watches the world around her and often finds herself an outsider looking in on things she should not be seeing. She wants to make sense of what has transpired during the summer but struggles with coming to terms with it. This novel is an investigation into how to describe something that we know we have experienced, yet at the same time know can’t be true. Liv’s life is disrupted in more ways than one as she tries to discern what is illusion and what she desires to see. The novel is an interesting investigation into the psyche of an isolated young girl trying to make sense of the world around her.
The power of Burnside’s diction lies within Liv’s struggle. The Nordic setting of the novel mirrors the blurring of distinctions between reality and illusion. The plot seamlessly stretches on, much like the Arctic summer days where the sun never sets, making both Liv and the reader unsure of the passage of time and the events which have transpired. Burnside’s descriptive language is a microscopic study of “the fabric of the given world” and leaves the reader with the disconcerting sense that “I just need to know where everything is, then when I am sure, I make a little space for mystery.”