Monday, 3 August 2015

The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon

Taking place in the summer of 1983, The Summer of Secrets is told from the perspective of Helen, a lonely and awkward 16 year old. Stuck at home with her shabby and uncommunicative father, Helen is not exactly looking forward to a summer of isolation and boredom.

Things start to look up for Helen when the Dovers move in to the tumbledown cottages down by the canal. Mysterious and bohemian, the Dover offspring Seth, twins Will and Pippa and the enigmatic Victoria have free run of the place as dreamy, unfocused Alice, their beautiful mother, spends most of her time asleep. Their carefree attitude and disregard for life's rules has an intoxicating effect on Helen. She and Victoria become inseparable, the outgoing and daring Victoria seeming all the more luminous and enthralling next to the cautious and authority fearing Helen.

Helen's summer of companionship and adventure ends suddenly on the night that her father launches his lifetime's work; his hand-built boat, finished with the help and expertise of Piet, the Dovers' uncle. Helen awakes from a smoky and hazy stupor to find that the Dovers have simply disappeared, and nobody will tell her anything about what happened. She spends the next 30 years wondering what happened that night and retreating more and more into her own mental collapse, cutting herself off from her family and living a lonely existence of lingering guilt and uncertainty. She dwells on her lack of recollection of the night that everything ended. 

Helen and Victoria's relationship was very interesting. What seems initially to be a friendship version of a summer fling is, upon closer inspection, a little more complicated. Helen was incredibly possessive and quick to get jealous, always dreading the end of the summer when the flighty Dovers would move on to their next location. She was very hung up on the inevitable end of the friendship to the point where some days she struggled to be present in it. But at the same time, she had a crippling inferiority complex, constantly convinced that Victoria was bored of her, or only using her to pass the time. She would have moments of rebellion where she would attempt to teach Victoria a lesson by skipping her company for a day, boring herself and going stir crazy in the process. Victoria rarely notices her absence. She herself has some deeply troubling aspects to her personality- she reminded me a little of a manipulative and abusive partner. One that undermines their weaker half so skilfully and so subtly that they don't notice...making critical suggestions veiled as constructive advice, planting seeds of doubt and self hatred then dismissing fears or insecurities as nonsense. Dishing out rewards of kindness and punishments of emotional cruelty. It seemed a very damaging and toxic relationship to me, one that Helen seemed to have become almost addicted to.

I found the prose to be easygoing, and the third person narration worked well too. Helen doesn't tell her own story, but the reader sort of witnesses events looking over her shoulder. I really liked the tone of the prose, it always felt like the narrator was holding something back- it reminded me a little bit of E Lockhart's We Were Liars, because it feels like the truth is out there, swimming on the edges of your understanding, but a little bit out of focus and just out of reach. It was that intrigue that kept me reading, despite my lack of empathy for either of the main characters.

The endless summer hijinks- the messing about on the tow-path and half-heartedly reading classic novels seemed fairly straightforward and reasonably secret-free, so I became convinced for a while that Helen was either schizophrenic or delusional and had invented the Dovers. Though the tension was being gradually built throughout the course of the pair's relationship, personally I thought the pace was a bit hit and miss- I know it's evocative of the endlessness of teen summers, but I got a bit frustrated. The novel builds up and up over the course of almost 250 pages, then there's the unfathomable amnesic version of the tragic event, the culmination of the story. Then the big reveal and the aftermath were over and done with very quickly before the book came to an abrupt end. I felt a little that just as the book was gathering pace, it was all over.

I can see this book being a brilliant summer read for lots of readers, and I think lots of people will be able to identify with Helen- her loneliness, her being slowly manipulated into making bad decisions. I think lots of people have had a friend in the past that meant a lot to them that they drifted away from, or were severed from, and that's a powerful thing. It's tense, it's atmospheric and incredibly evocative in that pivotal summer, coming of age way and the sun soaked haze of the story is very appealing, until it takes a somewhat inevitable turn for the tragic.

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