Friday, May 18, 2012

A Summer of Drowning, by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2011 (UK)
328 pp
(hardcover ed.)

"To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame  -- that is the highest form of art."

The small, remote Arctic island of Kvaløya, located in the middle of a "string of islands running from Tromsø in the east to Hillesøy in the west,"  is the setting for this disturbing and atmospheric novel, which is narrated from the perspective of Liv, daughter of the celebrated and reclusive painter Angelika Rossdale, looking back ten years later at the summer of her eighteenth year.

Angelika had "turned her back on the big wide world," leaving Oslo when Liv was very small, to focus on her work. She had a "gift for refusal," especially for refusing herself -- removing herself from the world, and applying the "discipline" required in this effort to every facet of her life.  According to Liv, she and her mother

"...  had the house, we had the whole island, in fact.  We had enough quiet and space to live our own lives as we wanted, not somebody else's version of how life should be, and we were more or less self-sufficient.  We were perfectly able to look after ourselves and we didn't need a thing from anyone." 

Living in the space her mother marked out, Liv is free to define her life as she chooses, but much of Liv's upbringing is based precisely on Angelika's ideas of not being a part of the world.  Angelika's removal from the frame was by choice; Liv's isolation is imposed upon her and she eventually becomes much more of a recluse than her mother.   From the outset the reader wonders about Liv, who at age 28 is still living on the island, where she has "become invisible," and has done

"nothing at all; or nothing other than to choose the life I am living now, a life someone else would think of as close to non-existent. No career, no husband, no lover, no friends, no children... I am a witness, pure and simple, and unaffiliated, lifelong spy."
Liv's spying career actually began as a game at the age of 18 when she started watching people, realizing she wasn't like them, and she wanted to understand "why she didn't want anything at all," thinking that there was something wrong with her.  Her only real friend on the island at that time is an old man named Kyrre Opdahl, who rented out his summer cottage periodically and also told Liv tales of the huldra, a mythological, siren-like creature who lured men "to some far, lonely place, where chaos lurks: dark rocks, wild beasts, a cold, quick undertow." The huldra begins to take shape in Liv's mind in the form of Maia, a strange young girl who was seen with two brothers shortly before their individual but identical deaths by drowning.  After another drowning occurs, one where Liv is the only witness to Maia's presence,  Liv's  account verges into the eerie and horrific, leading the reader to wonder if there really are supernatural forces at play on this remote island.  As more tragedies occur, and as things become more disquieting, Liv takes a moment to muse about "before," a time with

"the seas empty of ships, the land of houses and roads, the shore from here to Africa one long, uninterrupted flock of feeding birds, sandpipers and terns and oystercatchers, curlew, godwit, ibis, vast herds of reindeer and elk wandering from feeding ground to feeding ground, all the way to Siberia, the birch woods bright and articulate with song, wolverines and wolf packs calling to one another over the high snow,"

a time Liv can't really imagine but regrets the loss of. It is also a moment where things begin to come into clear focus. There are clues all along that point toward the truth about that summer; it's up to the reader to put everything together.  As the knowledge of what really happened begins to dawn, it melds into an uneasy, disturbing truth that will send up shiver up your spine.

Maddeningly, this is one of those novels that to say any more would really kill it for anyone who may be interested.  It is extremely disarming; at the same time the writing is superb, producing a sense of great unease in the reader until the very last second.

Very highly recommended if you don't mind not having things absolutely spelled out for you; readers of literary fiction should really like it.

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