The Summer of Secrets – Sarah Jasmon

At the end of the day, whatever their provenance, these are stories belonging to a summer which existed outside of the bounds of everyday reality. And its abrupt ending, its total, final and underlying cut-off, leaves them floating there, fairy tales from a world so enclosed I am no longer certain what was real and what I had created for myself.

The Summer of Secrets takes place in 1983 and in 2013. In the latter year, we’re introduced to Helen as she sees a poster for an art exhibition by a woman called Victoria Dover. Helen’s tried to find Victoria several times since 1983 but never succeeded. Now she’s back in Manchester and Helen returns to the memories of the summer they spent together.

Sixteen-year-old Helen lives near a section of the Manchester canal with her father. Her mother has recently left them and gone to live in Southport. Helen refused to go, remaining with her father who is struggling to cope both on a practical level and mentally. Helen is free to come and go as she pleases, her father rarely checking where she is or whom she’s with.

As she lies in the garden reading a book, Helen hears scuffling and whispering voices. Going to investigate, she finds a small girl in the middle of the hedge. She’s been dared to get to the other end of the hedge without Helen seeing her. She identifies herself as Pippa Dover, sister of a twin brother, Will. She also mentions another brother, Seth.

Helen, Pippa and Will play in the garden until a girl arrives to claim them:

It was a girl of about her own age, but so different that she could have been dropped from another planet. She had long hair, heaped and knotted at the back of her head, and she was wearing a tie-dyed sundress, pink going through purple into blue, brown leather sandals with toe-posts, and yellow nail varnish.

This is Victoria Dover.

The Dovers are living in one of the cottages near the canal. It’s noticeably run-down alongside the two other cottages that stand in the same row. The children have a mother, Alice, who lives with them but is fragile and rarely present. Their father, Jakob is absent, it is his brother Piet who pays the rent and comes to check on the family.

Helen is fascinated by them and their freedom. With a lifestyle so different to that imposed previously by her own mother, she’s drawn to the family and the cottage, spending more and more time there as the summer progresses. But almost everyone is keeping a secret and the combination of a hot summer, freedom from parental control and a newfound knowledge about the world will make for a very dangerous combination.

The Summer of Secrets captures those childhood summers which seemed to stretch endlessly as you hung around with friends finding various ways to entertain yourselves during the long days. Jasmon captures the atmosphere of these brilliantly, transporting the reader to warm days by the canal.

The lane had been surfaced at some distant point, but what remained was cracked and dusty, the space reclaimed by the thrusting growth of dandelions and grasses. Helen stopped, pinching a grass stem between finger and thumb and sliding up, so the seeds gathered in a neat bunch. April showers, she thought, as she tossed them away. The sky was cloudless and the air heavy, the heat a dense curtain she had to push her way through.

The sections of the novel set in 1983 are told in third person subjective from Helen’s point-of-view while the 2013 sections are told in first person. Jasmon deliberately separates the Helen of the more recent sections from the person she was at sixteen. The reason for this is revealed at the novel’s climax after long-kept secrets are revealed.

The Summer of Secrets is a gripping read. Although the 2013 sections are drip-fed throughout – and discovering what happened to Victoria is clearly key for Helen – the tension created in the 1983 chapters through Helen’s more conventional lifestyle and behaviour rubbing up against the more bohemian way of the Dovers was what kept me reading. Every encounter between Helen and Victoria or Seth or Piet or Alice felt as though it could end in disaster. If you prefer your summer reading to be smart and a little on the dark side without venturing into psychological thrillers, this could be the one for you.

 

Thanks to Transworld for the review copy.

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