Vanessa Ronan’s debut Gothic Americana novel is fresh off the presses, and it could not come more highly recommended by writers I love. Joseph O’Connor describes it as “a gripping piece of storytelling, a debut written with the empathy and authority more usually encountered in the work of an established novelist”; while Donal Ryan says it’s a “powerful, formidable debut. Vanessa is a natural storyteller and what a gripping, dark, compelling story this is”. And that’s just to start with, I won’t drone on! So I was delighted to receive an advance copy from Penguin in return for an honest review, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
The story is told from four different viewpoints by four closely intertwined characters with very different ways of looking at the world. Jasper Curtis, newly released after a decade in prison, returns to what was his parents farm. His sister Lizzie lives there now with her two daughters, unsure of who Jasper is – the big brother who she idolised and remembers with love, or the monster he became and a danger to her daughters. Teenage beauty Katie distrusts this strange man in their home, and wants more than anything to hold the attention of her football hero boyfriend. Eleven-year-old Joanne is intrigued by her new uncle, and fascinated with the crime that put him in prison, a crime that has been kept secret from her. Jasper says he’s done with trouble, but he chooses to insert himself back into a prairie town that will never forgive him, and trouble is not done with him.
The opening chapters, establishing the setting, have flashes of poetry:
July flies call in the humid evening, song thick as heat, rolling in uneven waves across the lawn to wash up tuneless on the front porch…Had anyone been watching they might have thought Lizzie was waiting for someone. For him perhaps. Or the girls to come home. Or perhaps she was looking out beyond that darkness to another time when things seemed simpler, the stars more than children’s wishes trapped.
We are introduced to primroses that bloom in the darkness, cicadas that shed their skin as the Curtis siblings wish they could shed their past, an array of subtle images capturing the intense heat and intense pressure of small town prairie life.
These initial flashes made me feel I would enjoy this novel, but it just didn’t match the hype for me. Small things kept snagging my attention and pulling me out of the story – a reference to “granny curtains”; snatches of dialogue that felt lifted from a country and western song; a reference to the era that the novel was set in (close to the end) despite no previous indication it was set then… After an evocative beginning, I felt it dragged in the middle, and then wildly escalated to a far darker place than had been indicated in the first 80% of the book.
It was obvious from the first visit of a smarmy sweaty Reverend to Lizzie on the eve of Jasper’s return where this tale of small town revenge was going. What would set it apart is how we got to that point, and while it is atmospheric and captures small town claustrophobia, it’s also too slowly paced. We spend a lot of time seeing through Jasper’s eyes, and while there are “well that was creepy” moments in his internal monologue there was nothing that pointed to the severity of his oft-hinted crime. I couldn’t help feeling, as we escalated towards the conclusion, that we would have been better off not seeing through his eyes at all if we were to get a half picture of the kind of man he is. The middle of the book gets bogged down with character building . To read through it and yet not have a sense of one of the main characters, and to not give a hoot about another (Katie) at the end of it is a big failing for me. I felt the book fell between two stools – it couldn’t decide if it was literary fiction or crime fiction, and ended up a not totally successful version of either.
The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan is published by Penguin UK. I received a copy of this book in return for an impartial review.