Category Archives: John Burnside

Reading With Authors #6: A Summer of Drowning – John Burnside; With Jane Harris


Well Jane I am not sure how you will feel about this, but thanks to the magic of the internet we have ended up in a wooden log cabin in middle of the Artic Circle which is most apt for our discussion of ‘A Summer of Drowning’. It’s a bit chilly so do grab one of those fashionable all in one sleeping- bag outfits hanging up. Whilst you’re doing that what can I get you to drink, anything to eat?

Ah yes, the all-in-one sleeping-bag suit, that most flattering of garments. And in lime green too! Many thanks – I must look a treat. As for refreshments, perhaps in honour of our book “A Summer of Drowning” we should eat Napoleon Cake and drink lashings of coffee (as the narrator and her mother do). Now, let me just zip myself into this suit . . . there! We’re all set to begin.

So Jane, you chose (and no that’s not accusation you can hear in my tone) this book ‘A Summer of Drowning’, which I believe is John Burnside’s seventh. What made you want to read it, well us to read it?

I think this book was on my mind when you asked me to do this discussion. I was wondering what to read next and since I was in a period when I felt extremely liberated and able to read anything I wanted (rather than just reading books connected to my own research) what little I knew of this novel appealed to me. I say I knew little about it because I never ever read a review of a book until I’ve actually read the book itself. If at all possible, I like to know nothing in advance. Reading about what happens in a book spoils it for me. It’s the same with films: I never read the reviews until afterwards. I like to discover stories for myself. So I knew very little about this book, apart from the fact that it was written by John Burnside. I met him once, almost twenty years ago. We did a reading together at Morden Tower in Newcastle, and he seemed an extremely nice, kind man. When I was thinking of what to read next, I found it intriguing that he’d chosen to set his latest novel in a Scandinavian country (I was hazy on the details at that point so wasn’t sure if the location was Norway or Sweden).

Ooh, we do the same thing with books; I don’t like to know much before either. Though in this case I broke with that rule slightly as I hadn’t heard of it so googled the blurb to see what it might be like and I have to say from the blurb I was really excited. It sounded like a wonderfully dark mystery meets fairytale all around the drowning of some boys and why suddenly these deaths happened, along with the spooky tale of this creature/thing called ‘the huldra’ on a remote island called Kvaløya. Did it live up to your expectations, if you had any? I know I was expecting something…

Well, like I say, I tried to read as little as possible about it in advance but yes, I had an expectation that it would be a dark Scandinavian mystery, with echoes of a lot of the stuff that’s there in the culture at the moment, in films like “Let the Right One In” and in mainstream crime novels by authors like Jo Nesbo and Henning Mankel. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to thrillers and horror. I don’t read much in that genre because it affects me too much. I haven’t read any Nesbo or Mankel, though I may do, if I pluck up the courage. I suppose, in the back of my mind, I was hoping that “A Summer of Drowning” would have some of the edginess of one of those Scandinavian thrillers, without being too gory.

I can recommend the first Mankell, I though Nesbo was quite good. Neither of them have become favourites and I havent got on with the Larsson books. Can anyone recommend any books for Jane out there? Back to this book, and I hate to do this… but I didn’t like the book overall, I have to say. BUT, and this is a big but, I did like the sum of its parts. I will get the negatives out of the way first, and first up is the nature of the writing. There is no question John is a wonderful writer in terms of the way he puts his prose, but from the prologue alone I thought ‘goodness this is repetitive’. It was almost like he had to use every possible variation on ‘this is going to be a mystery’ and go on about it… admittedly in a beautiful way. Am I being too harsh as beautiful writing is beautiful writing?

He is a fabulous writer, isn’t he? I suppose I know what you mean about the writing being repetitive, and normally that would probably annoy me but I found it hard to dislike this book. I had a bit of trouble getting into it, at first, but once I did sink into its atmosphere – and atmosphere is, I think, the most stunning element of this novel – I almost felt like I was in a trance: a trance, or a dream which turned, at times, into a nightmare. I don’t know how he has done it, but he seems to have captured certain moods, emotions, states of mind, ways of being and ways of seeing, that I can hardly even put into words. There’s the immense lonliness of Liv, the narrator, and the sense of what it’s like to be young and living in a remote place. There’s the eeriness of being alone in a vast landscape, and what can be the sudden overwhelming panic and terror of that (something I’ve experienced a fair few times in my life). There’s the sense of being observed, and the addiction to observing, as experienced by Liv when she spies on her neighbours. Yes, at times, the prose was repetitive but I began to wonder whether that was part of the point – was this Liv, obsessively working things over and over in her mind, poring over every little detail, examining nuances, notions, neurotically trying to find answers to the mysteries in the story, unable to tell what was real any longer, and what was not?

More drink or nibbles Jane? Could you give the fire a poke while I am doing that?

But of course. No more cake, thank you, otherwise I’ll never get out of this slug-suit. But I’d love some more coffee.

My second critique is that the book seemed to have so much to say, so many themes and yet no anchor to the story. Some books have no plot and they work really well, this had lots of threads, mystery, the pedophilic storyline, the coming of age, the relationship with mothers theme, the magical fairytale/fable element, the underlying horror… I could go on and on. After I finished whilst I was left impressed by all Burnside had written I didn’t feel they all cohesively worked. Again maybe I am being too harsh or didn’t get it?

Yes, in a way I know what you mean and I think that ordinarily, all that might have frustrated me. I suppose, to begin with, I was expecting something more plot-driven, some form of detective element perhaps, with Liv solving the mysteries of the disappearances and strange occurences. However, once I realised that I wasn’t going to get that, I just allowed myself to sink into the narrative that Burnside had created. And in a way, the book was more scary and creepy than if he’d worked on consolidating the plot or tying up the loose ends. It was more nightmarish because the strange things that happen remain unexplained. It’s not even as simple as knowing whether what happens is real or all in the mind, or minds, of certain characters. I’m not a huge fan of magic realism (that’s an understatement, by the way) and I love the way Burnside kept the story rooted in the real, while, around the edges, it’s almost as though a hidden, terrifying world is peeping through, threatening to overwhelm reality.

I loved the idea of ‘the huldra’, a Norse myth of a woman who seduces men and then kills them or rewards them dependent on mood, and how Liv (our narrator) thinks she is embodied to Maia who is a local girl on the island. There was  something in that which reminded me of when you are at school and you think your teacher is a witch etc. I thought this theme and story arch was my favourite, was it yours?

Yes, I agree. I found all of that stuff incredibly creepy and scary. The encounters between those two girls, the description of the painting that Liv’s mother paints of Maia, the sense of Maia being a power that cannot be reckoned with – all extremely powerful. It really did give me chills. Even now when I think about it, it makes me shiver.

‘A Summer of Drowning’ is told by Liv, who is looking back on it as memories, did this work for you? I wondered why Burnside used it especially with regard to the ending which is ambiguous to say the least…

That’s an interesting point and it’s always a very niggling question for a writer, I think – what point in time do you tell your story from? I always agonise over that because it has such an impact on how your narrator will tell the story, how fresh it is in their mind, how much they have been able to rationalise or gloss over events, and so on. To be honest, I didn’t really question the decision that Burnside had made so I suppose it must have worked for me. I like where he has the character of Liv ending up – it seemed inevitable that she is now doing what she does, and there’s a delicious ambiguity right until the end, which I enjoyed.

I have to say the ending made me cross. Really cross. I felt like after all that I ended up at a loss, and I am not a reader who has to have everything spelt out for them, I felt cheated like I had made all this effort and what for?

Yes, I know you don’t need everything spelt out for you because of what you’ve written about certain other books (ahem!).  Like you, I don’t tend to like everything spelt out either. I’m going to have to think a bit more about “A Summer of Drowning”. I just finished it this morning, so it’s all very fresh in my mind. I can say though that it didn’t make me cross because about two thirds of the way through I had a feeling I wouldn’t get the kind of answers that one might expect from a mainstream thriller and so I put aside that expectation and tried to accept the novel for what it was, and to appreciate the consolations of being drawn into such a creepy world, while not being able to figure out exactly how he (the writer) was making me scared and unsettled.

That all said I would like to try some of John Burnside’s other books, maybe this wasn’t the best one to start with?

If I were you I might try “A Lie About my Father” which is Burnside’s memoir.

So over to all of you, pop a sleeping bag suit on and get cosy in the cabin with some cake and tea. Who else has read this and what did you think? Is it reflective of John Burnside over all? What other books would you recommend of his to Jane and myself? Anything else to add?



Filed under Jane Harris, John Burnside, Reading With Authors 2011