Book Review | A Summer of Drowning

Fascinated with novels by poets, ROSE LAPIRA is enchanted by Scottish bard John Burnside’s evocative journey through traumatic childhood memories.

Dangerous, beautiful and irrational: Scottish poet-novelist John Burnside.
Dangerous, beautiful and irrational: Scottish poet-novelist John Burnside.

Novels written by poets have a special attraction for me. This could be because a poet is in love with the magic of words, and in a novel this is translated into another kind of magic, where the focus is not the story, but the spell created by the choice and flow of words. This is what happens in John Burnside's novel A Summer of Drowning, shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Novel Award.

John Burnside is a Scottish poet, best known for his poetry, though he has also written 8 novels and a two volume memoir. Having published 13 collections of poetry, he has won the Whitbread Poetry Award for The Asylum Dance and the T.S. Eliot Prize 2011 for Black Cat Bone.

A traumatic childhood and an early troubled life led to psychiatric wards and a mental breakdown. Not surprisingly, this has influenced his writing. Having lived with the horror of irrationality he admits 'that rationality does not carry you all the way. Irrationality interests me more than anything, sometimes it is very dangerous, but it can be incredibly beautiful'.

A Summer of Drowning is set on the Arctic island of Kvaloya. Burnside fell in love with the Arctic Circle when he visited northern Norway with his wife and son, and it took him ten years to turn the experience into this novel. He was fascinated by the island of Kvaloya and its legends, particularly by the myth of the huldra: a troll who appears as a beautiful woman to lure men to their deaths, and yet if one tries to look beyond the illusion one would see that she has a cow's tail. But none do that, for Burnside seems to be saying that illusions are essential to carry on with our lives.

The story is narrated by 28-year-old Liv, who is trying to make sense of what had happened ten years before, when mysterious drownings took place on the remote island of Kvaloya. Leading a solitary life, with a recluse painter for a mother, she lives in a timeless world where it is difficult to separate myth from reality.

She recounts an eerie story of two young boys who drown - one after the other - in strange circumstances, after being friendly with the young girl Maia. An Englishman, Martin Crosbie, comes to live temporarily on the island. Liv sees him as a 'man without substance, not a ghost as much as an illusion'.

But he has secrets of his own. Prying in his cabin, she discovers images of very young girls on his computer, including photos of her.  Eventually, he also disappears after becoming friendly with Maia. Liv is convinced that this girl is the huldra.

But is Maia really the cause of all this upheaval?  How reliable is Liv's version of what happened, especially in the hallucinogenic atmosphere of the midnight sun? At some stage one gets the suspicion that perhaps all is not well with her, and what she is telling us, ultimately reflects on the stability of her mind. The myth of the huldra is a product of man's mind and it says a lot about the people who are able to see her: Liv and the old man Kyrre, a father figure to Liv.

The story is told in the first person by Liv, who is the protagonist of the book as she tries to unravel what happened ten years before. She tells us 'I am one of God's spies. I do not believe in God or not in the usual way; but I do find that I am here for a reason, and that is to keep watch.'

Always immersed in books, she remembers that Shakespeare used the phrase, and she makes it her own. This comes from King Lear: 'We'll think about the mysteries of the universe as if we were God's spies'.

In his writings Burnside is fascinated by the mysteries of the universe: the beauty and the cruelty. The huldra myth has chaos at its heart. Like Kyrre, Liv comes to believe that 'order is an illusion and, eventually something will emerge from the background noise and the shadows and upset everything we are so determined to believe in'.

A Summer of Drowning is a dark story. It begins as a horror, mystery story and turns into something much more complex. The ending is ambiguous. We do not know for sure if the events as described are real or a product of Liv's mind.

Burnside can be repetitive, at times assailing the reader with very long paragraphs. But it is easy to be drawn into the flow and rhythm of the words, as Burnside creates hauntingly, beautiful poetic images of a magical world of water and light that capture our imagination. 

And as we all know, imagination can be more rewarding than knowledge, with its many limitations.

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