Cruel Summer starts with beautiful Janey, teetering on the edge of the coastal cliffs on prom night- tearful, humiliated. A figure approaches, she steps back away from the person she has no desire to see and plummets over the edge.
Fast forward a year, and Janey's surviving friends have organised a Spanish reunion holiday- a week of catching up, fun and sangria in the sun. Ryan, the book's narrator sees his life as a long running TV series with him as the fabulous star, and this episode is the set-abroad ratings winner that every sitcom is partial to once in a while. He pigeon holes his friends as stock characters- Katie, the English Rose- quiet, considerate, the textbook good girl. Alisha, the hot mess- sassy party girl with newly cultivated queen Bey afro. Ben, the geek- intelligent, sensitive and good old fashioned eye candy. Greg, the rising sports star- rugged, toned, twin of Alisha and all-round macho tastic. His girlfriend Erin- outsider, med student, new to the group.
Their initial feelings at being thrown together after a year are mixed, and Dawson writes that awkward reunion vibe brilliantly. During a beach bonfire on the second night, Ryan is keen to address the elephant in the room- Janey's death. He's not so sure that it was suicide- Janey simply wan't the type and they all know it. According to his admittedly dramatic leanings, that makes one of them a murderer. When a seventh guest turns up, lobbing a grenade into the group's dynamic and threatening to out some juicy hidden secrets, the group conclude she must have evidence linking one of them to Janey's death. The next morning this unwelcome guest is found dead in the pool, her head caved in. Ryan's hypothesis is correct. One of them is a murder.
The rest of the book is a tense, suspicion drenched whirlwind, as the friends gradually piece together what happened on the night of the Prom, the reader's suspicions shifting from one to the other- their own suspicions flung around freely. It's fascinating to watch the characters fray under pressure, as the secrets and revelations cause them to gradually fall apart. The characters themselves are incredibly strong and the reader immediately feels like they know and understand them, despite the secrets they harbour. I loved the dynamics of the cast- that reunion vibe, when everybody has kind of moved on and isn't sure if they have anything in common with their old friends anymore- that first real, long term test of a friendship, seeing if it is one of the ones that will last time and distance. That came across really beautifully. It's interesting because it's an aspect that will perhaps resonate more with adult readers than the young adults at which it's targeted.
I loved Ryan's style- being an aspiring actor he knows how to spin a story and he makes for such an engaging narrator, letting the reader in on all his assumptions and thoughts. He's funny and easy to relate to, and it broke my heart a little bit how happy he was to be in the company of people that knew him- people that he doesn't need to put on a show for or impress. It must be hard to feel judged all the time, as a drama school student is- a welcome break from an exhausting life.
I really liked Alisha too, despite Ryan's implicit opinion that she's not really protagonist material- her insecurity at being the only one left behind in the hometown, repeating year 13 was subtly woven into her character. She's keen to throw off her rehab reputation and start again as a photographer. I loved how full of hope and optimism she was- much more genuine. We all have those mates who went off to Uni and came back with a new accent and a whole new character- Alisha is afraid that this has happened to her friends while she's been left behind and that makes her a really interesting character. Hard as nails on the outside, but actually really vulnerable and insecure.
The book is incredibly tense, it's the finger-pointing whodunnit of And Then There Were None, meets the horror-genre expert knowingness of Scream or something. Showing my age a bit there. I thought Ryan's TV obsession framed the narrative really well- how he was always one step ahead of the story because he knows the ways in which stories pan out. It was a really clever and very effective technique that made this a truly memorable novel. I could go on for longer about how breath-holding-ly gripping this story is and how much I enjoyed it, and how impressive it is when everything is revealed with a dramatic flourish, but I don't want to spoil it. Cruel Summer will keep you guessing right up to the last page, and the violence and sadness with which you are torn from these wonderful characters will emotionally wound you as a reader forever.